20, No. 2
Child Forensic Interviewing: A 30-Year Perspective
By Mark D. Everson, PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
"You're a good therapist. Just wing it."
I was about to do my very first "forensic" interview in 1983 and this was my faculty supervisor's advice. I don't remember who was more terrified that day, the five-year-old who was to be interviewed or me, the UNC "expert."
This was the beginning of my 30+ year career devoted to improving the way children are interviewed in cases of suspected child sexual abuse (CSA). The field of child forensic interviewing has evolved substantially since its infancy in the early 1980's. Overwhelmingly, the changes have been significant improvements. However, there have been a few retreats from effective interview practice mixed in among the many advances.
This article offers one child abuse professional's appraisal of the field of child forensic interviewing during the last three decades.
1. Paradigm shift from "clinical" to "forensic"
In the 1980's, accepted interview practice was shaped by three beliefs commonly held at the time:
During much of the 1980's, the "disclosure interview," as the interview with the alleged child victim was frequently called, was widely viewed as a clinical interview, ideally to be conducted by a trained clinician. The interviewer was given significant leeway to push the envelope of appropriate questioning to ensure no CSA victim was missed and left unprotected.
By the early to mid-1990's, the underlying assumptions as well as the methodology of the clinical interview paradigm were widely discredited. A number of factors contributed to this change in perspective, including new research on children's memory and suggestibility and several high profile cases in which "overly suggestive" interview techniques were believed to have resulted in criminal charges and convictions of innocent adults.
The forensic interview paradigm, with its emphasis on implementation of research-based practice, replaced all things clinical. The playroom stocked with toys and dolls was replaced by the bare interview room equipped with a marker and a pad of paper.
2. Development of structured interview protocols
In the mid-1990's, Michael Lamb and colleagues introduced the highly innovative NICHD Investigative Interview protocol. With NICHD, the interview is largely scripted, providing many of the words for the interviewer to say in order to reduce interviewer error. Second, the protocol was the first to bring together all the elements of narrative interview technology in a single interview format.
The NICHD interview protocol has been widely researched and dominates the field today. While the original protocol comes across as formal and not child friendly, it has been widely adapted and softened. The RADAR forensic interview protocol, which is taught in the NC DSS-sponsored course Child Forensic Interviewing, is one such adaptation. RADAR offers scripting for the novice interviewer and scaffolding for more experienced interviewers.
3. Use of narrative interview technology
During the 1980's, many of us tried the use of narrative requests, producing the following scenario:
The interviewer then follows up with a series of more direct questions.
In those days, narrative requests elicited, at most, a brief sentence; to elicit the substance of what occurred more directed questioning was required. As a result, people quickly gave up on narrative questioning.
Lamb and his colleagues demonstrated in their NICHD protocol that narrative interview strategies do work if the child is properly trained and encouraged to reply in narrative form. In brief, narrative interview technology includes building rapport through building narratives, formal narrative practice, and specialized narrative questioning concerning the target event.
When this approach is used, many children as young as 4 or 5 years old can provide rich, detailed narratives about the substantive events under investigation. These narratives often yield an abundance of leads that can be used to corroborate or refute the child's statement.
4. Specialization of the child forensic interviewer role
5. Commitment to forensic balance in the investigative process
The 1980's was a "Sensitivity Era": an overemphasis on making sure no victim was overlooked increased the risk that children who had not experienced abuse were nonetheless identified as victims (i.e., false positive errors). The early to mid-1990's marked the beginning of a "Specificity Era" in which preventing false positive errors became the priority at the risk of increased false negative errors.
To oversimplify slightly, the motto of the Sensitivity Era was "Tell me your secret so I can help." This was replaced in the Specificity Era with the motto "Convince me, if you claim you have been abused."
In the last decade or so, our field has begun to acknowledge that false positive and false negative errors both have devastating impacts on those affected. Both types of errors should be avoided without trading off one for the other. We have entered a new era of "forensic balance" where sensitivity and specificity receive equal emphasis.
1. Flexibility in the use of multiple interviews
2. Recognition of the need to address barriers to disclosure
Implications for Child Welfare Practice
As best practice standards evolve to reflect an emphasis on forensic balance rather than specificity, we can expect a reappraisal of several aspects of current practice. At the top of the list for reappraisal is our field's misplaced confidence in the single child forensic interview.
Dr. Everson is a professor and the director of the Program on Childhood Trauma and Maltreatment at UNC-CH.