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2002 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 8, No. 1
December 2002

Conducting Forensic Interviews

Because forensic interviews can play a pivotal role in investigations of sexual and emotional abuse of children, child protective services (CPS) workers need to know how they are conducted.

Many Models and Techniques

The first important point to know about forensic interviews is that there are many ways to conduct them, and that there is no single model or method endorsed unanimously by experts in the field. Some of the many forensic interviewing models in use today are the Child Cognitive interview, Step-Wise interview, and Narrative Elaboration. Like many of the others in existence, these three have been shown to be more effective at helping children recall information than standard interviewing techniques. For example, one study found that school-aged children trained in Narrative Elaboration provided 53% more accurate information in a narrative report of a past school activity than did children in a control group who received no intervention (Saywitz & Goodman, 1996).

There are, however, some basic elements common to most forensic interviews, which usually include phases such as introduction, rapport building, developmental assessment (including learning the child’s names for different body parts), guidelines for the interview, competency assessment (where, among other things, it is determined if the child knows the difference between lying and telling the truth), narrative description of the event or events under investigation, follow-up questions, clarification, and closure (Cordisco & Carnes, 2002). Forensic interviews may also incorporate the use of aids and props, such as anatomically detailed dolls, anatomical diagrams, dollhouses, puppets, etc. Despite the differences that exist in the approaches interviewers take, it is possible to get a general sense of what a forensic interview is like. To do this, we will examine the Step-Wise Interview.

The Step-Wise Interview

Developed by researcher John Yuille and his colleagues, the Step-Wise interview employs techniques to: minimize any trauma the child may experience during the interview; maximize the amount and quality of the information obtained from the child while, at the same time, minimizing any contamination of that information; and maintain the integrity of the investigative process for the agencies involved. The steps in this method begin with the most open, least leading, least suggestive form of questioning and, if necessary, proceed to more specific and more leading questioning (Gray, 1994). For an illustration of the different types of questions asked during this method and where they fall in the continuum of leading/non-leading questions, refer to the figure "A Continuum of Types of Questions To Be Used in Interviewing Children Alleged to Have Been Sexually Abused."

The Step-Wise method begins with a rapport building phase during which the interviewer puts the child at ease by asking questions about the child’s interests. During this phase, the rules for the interview are discussed (e.g., “If you are unsure about an answer, please say so”) and the child’s level of development (e.g., linguistic, cognitive), body language, and affect are assessed. The child is commonly asked to recount two specific past experiences, such as a school outing, etc. The interviewer uses these narratives as a basis for assessing the level of detail the child ordinarily conveys, and also as a way to teach the child to tell a story in a way that fits with the “rules” of the interview.

The interviewer then introduces the topic of concern with a general question such as “Do you know why we are talking today?” The objective at this phase is to encourage the child to give an unprompted, free narrative account of the event under investigation. Younger children are less responsive to this kind of prompt. After the child has exhausted his or her free narrative, the interviewer moves to questioning. This begins with open-ended questions and then, if necessary, the interviewer proceeds to employ specific, but non-leading questions, closed questions, and leading questions. As indicated in the figure, as the interviewer descends in this hierarchy of questions, he or she can have less confidence in the accuracy of the child’s responses, which make them less useful either for drawing a conclusion about abuse or as forensic evidence.

The interviewer ends the Step-Wise interview by thanking the child for participating, asking if the child has any questions, and explaining what will happen next (Flick & Caye, 2001; Yuille, et al., 1993; Gray, 1994).

Much More to Know

In its guidelines for investigative interviewing in cases of alleged child abuse (1997), the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) states that “Investigative interviewing in cases of alleged abuse requires specialized knowledge. This knowledge can be acquired in a variety of ways (e.g., formal course work, individual reading, workshops and conferences, professional experience and supervision), and should include familiarity with basic concepts of child development, communication abilities of children, dynamics of abuse and offenders, categories of information necessary for a thorough investigation, legally acceptable child interviewing techniques, and the use of interview aids (such as drawings or anatomical dolls). Specialized knowledge is especially important when young children are interviewed.”

Clearly, transmitting useful knowledge about this wide range of fields is beyond the scope of this brief newsletter. We can, however, tell you about resources that will help you build your knowledge in this vitally important area. Yet it is important to recognize that written materials cannot adequately prepare you for forensic interviewing, which should not be undertaken without sufficient training, observation, and practice. That said, we suggest you consult the sources listed in the references to learn more.

Training On Forensic Interviewing

Just as there is no one “right” method of performing a forensic interview, there is no one training or credentialing program for forensic interviewers. There are, however, several programs on the national level that have been recognized as the “gold standard” of training in this area. One of the best known is Finding Words, an intensive, five-day course that instructs teams of child abuse professionals in the art of interviewing children about abuse and defending that interview in court. To learn more, call Grant Bauer (703/518-4385) at the American Prosecutors Research Institute. APSAC also offers 40-hour forensic interviewing training clinics. To be added to the waiting list and receive information about future clinics, e-mail a request to www.APSACEduc@aol.com including your name, affiliation, address, phone, fax, and e-mail address. To learn more, visit <http://www.apsac.org/training/clinics.html>.

In the realm of child welfare training, North Carolina provides child welfare workers with a useful introduction to forensic interviewing through its course, Introduction to Child Sexual Abuse. During this advanced-level curriculum, participants learn about and have an opportunity to practice the Step-Wise method and other techniques used in forensic interviews. To learn when and where this course will be offered, consult your agency’s copy of the Division’s current training schedule, or visit <http://ssw.unc.edu/fcrp/training_schedule/trainsched_welcome.htm>. Training in forensic interviewing may also be available through North Carolina’s Area Health Education Centers. To access their on-line calendars, visit <http://www.med.unc.edu/ahec/calendars.htm>. Your local child advocacy center (CAC) may also offer training in this area.

References for this and other articles in this issue