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Family and Children's
Resource Program

Vol. 20, No. 2
April 2015

Child Sex Abuse Interview Protocols: An Overview

When someone reports a child has been sexually abused, North Carolina state law (NCGS 7B-302) requires child protective services (CPS) to have immediate face-to-face contact with the alleged victim and all other children living in the home. During this meeting, CPS assessors begin trying to determine two things: whether sexual abuse occurred and, if so, whether it might happen again. (Prosecution of the offender, if it occurs, is the responsibility of law enforcement.)

CPS assessments of child sexual abuse can be difficult. Typically, this crime occurs in secret and involves only the child and the offender. Medical evidence is rare, occurring in only 5% of cases. Physical evidence (e.g., pictures, text messages, video, body fluids) is present in only 10-30% of cases. The offender is unlikely to tell (Staller, 2010).

Although CPS also talks with the protective/non-offending parent and collaterals (e.g., teachers, day care providers, neighbors, etc.), in most instances the child is the best source of information.

This means that when we interview children about possible sexual abuse, it is critically important that we do it right.

Child Sexual Abuse Interviews
Interviews assessing for child sexual abuse (CSA) differ from interviews conducted in supportive counseling, mental health treatment, or other clinical settings. Child sexual abuse interviews are fact-finding efforts with three goals:

  1. Minimizing the trauma of the interview.
  2. Maximizing the amount and accuracy of information obtained.
  3. Maintaining the integrity of the CPS assessment--in other words, gathering information without trying to "prove" a particular hypothesis (Azzopardi, 2013)

When it comes to achieving these goals the most important factor is interviewer skill. This is especially true when it comes to information quality; how interviewers behave during an interview affects the amount and accuracy of information produced (Saywitz, 2014; Lamb, 2008).

Based on a substantial body of research evidence, there is broad agreement about the techniques most likely to yield accurate, credible information. Unfortunately, studies also show that many workers do not use these techniques in the field, even when they know what "best practice" is.

For example, most interviewers know they should use open-ended questions, yet typically only 2% of the questions they ask are open-ended. Most often, they ask specific questions such as, "Did he touch you?" even though research indicates answers to direct questions are far more likely to be wrong (Lamb, 2008; Aprile, et al., 2009).

Evidence-Based Protocols
To promote the use of effective, proven techniques, experts developed structured child sexual abuse interviewing protocols and tested them with over 30,000 children in the U.S., Australia, Israel, and the United Kingdom (Lamb, 2008; Saywitz, 2014; Pipe, 2007). Today there are five recognized CSA interviewing protocols:

  • NICHD (developed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development)*
  • The Step-Wise Interview
  • Developmental Narrative Elaboration
  • Cognitive Interview
  • Child First (formerly "Finding Words")

[*RADAR (Recognizing Abuse Disclosure types and Responding), taught in the NC DSS-sponsored class "Child Forensic Interviewing," is an adaptation of the NICHD protocol.]

There are slight differences among these protocols, but all are remarkably similar. Each consists of five steps: (1) introduction/rapport building; (2) instructions; (3) free narrative practice; (4) free narrative; (5) closure. These protocols are so similar because the research is clear which techniques are most likely to yield the best information.

Benefits of Protocols
Using a protocol:

Improves interviewer performance. Protocols reduce problems such as interviewer miscommunications and misleading questions. Workers using protocols ask three times more open-ended questions and cut in half the number of suggestive questions they ask (Lamb, 2008; Pipe, 2007).

Makes the interview easier for the child. Protocols enhance the child's participation, elicit more memory from the child, and take into account what children are able to do at certain ages. Protocols are especially beneficial for interviewing children from both low income families and minority ethnic groups (Lamb, 2008; Pipe, 2007).

Using a free narrative protocol increases information without decreasing accuracy (Saywitz, 2014; Azzopardi, 2013). This is especially true for events from long ago, even for children with learning disabilities or low IQ (Lamb, 2008; Pipe, 2007).

Facilitates case decisions. With a protocol, the child provides more details and more leads that investigators can corroborate (e.g., names of others present; locations; existence of videotape, phone messages, photos, etc.). This makes it easier to evaluate the child's statements.

May increase prosecution of offenders. When a protocol is used cases are more likely to be submitted to the district attorney, more likely to lead to charges or arrests, and more likely to go through the criminal justice system (Lamb, 2008; Pipe, 2007).

Use of Protocols in NC Today
Several countries have made the use of child sexual abuse protocols mandatory (Lamb, 2008; Pipe, 2007). While North Carolina has not, it does endorse a modified version of the NICHD protocol, which it makes available through the course Child Forensic Interviewing. This course, which has been offered 62 times since 2004, has been attended by a total of 886 people from 80 county DSS agencies, including 839 direct client contact workers (e.g., CPS assessors), 31 supervisors, and 2 agency directors. Many others have also attended Introduction to Child Sexual Abuse. (Intro to CSA has recently been replaced by Responding to Child Sexual Abuse--for more on this change, see the next article).

Of course, attendance figures can't tell us to what extent CSA interviewing protocols are being used consistently and with fidelity, either by individuals or by whole agencies. At present this data does not exist.

Given what the research says about the benefits, formally including CSA interview protocols in agency policy and taking steps to support their ongoing use--with fidelity--are worthwhile investments.

References for this and other articles in this issue