Asking Children to Talk About Abuse: Can Research Help Improve Police Interviewer Skills?

Child abuse cases often lack corroborative evidence in the form of injuries, DNA or direct witness observations. Instead, the most important source of information about the alleged crime is typically the child’s testimony. A wide range of factors can influence children’s capability and willingness to disclose abuse during a police interview. Hence, the child interviewer needs to elicit reliable information from children without influencing their testimony. The National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) protocol is a well-researched standardized method for interviewing children. Research shows that field training in the protocol can improve police interviewer skills, but some challenges remain. Revisions of the original protocol and other solutions may provide promise for cases where children are reluctant to talk. Recent technological advances also provide ways forward for research on child interviewing.


In August 1983, in a Californian suburb outside of Los Angeles, police started to investigate a child sexual abuse allegation. Little did they know that the McMartin case (State of California v. Buckey, 1990) would continue for nearly eight years and involve accusations from more than three hundred children. Seven preschool teachers were eventually accused of forcing preschoolers to participate in gruesome and bizarre sexual acts. Some of the children’s claims seemed highly improbable, such as that one of the accused could fly and that the preschool rested upon a network of underground tunnels. The California state prosecutors later dropped all charges but one important question remained – what caused so many children to report these apparently false claims?

Child drawing

Several factors, such as the use of highly suggestive questions and social pressure, were later identified in the McMartin case (Garven, Wood, Malpass, & Shaw, 1998). Although an extreme example, the case demonstrates some of the difficulties in play when interviewing young children in legal contexts. False details can be elicited by inadequate interviewing techniques and social influence. This can, in turn, lead to false allegations or even create entirely false memories of abuse (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995). Yes, you read right; memories can be implemented in your mind (there is a great TED Talk on this subject by Elizabeth Loftus). The legal consequences of false accusations can be devastating, as it could contribute to innocent people being convicted for crimes they did not commit. On the other hand, the proportion of false child sexual abuse allegations is estimated to be low, despite memorable miscarriages of justice such as the McMartin case. Trocmé and Bala (2005), for example, studied a large sample of Canadian abuse investigations and reported that only 2 - 6% of accusations concerning sexual abuse, maltreatment and neglect appeared to be intentionally fabricated. In fact, the widespread issue of underreporting is likely more of a problem, as a significant proportion of child victims experience great difficulties disclosing their victimization (e.g., London, Bruck, Wright, & Ceci, 2008).

Decades of laboratory and field research has demonstrated that children, even as young as three years of age, can provide accurate testimonies (e.g., Bruck & Ceci, 1999; Goodman & Melinder, 2007). But a wide range of factors influence children’s capability and willingness to report crimes to the police, and case studies of crimes that can be verified by other evidence (e.g., video-recordings) demonstrate that children often omit sensitive details or deny that the crime has taken place (e.g., Leander, 2010; Leander, Christianson, & Granhag, 2007; Sjöberg & Lindblad, 2002).  In sexual abuse cases, trauma reactions, loyalty towards the perpetrator, and internal feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame are just a few of the many barriers that could hinder a victim from sharing the details of their experience (e.g., Magnusson, Ernberg, & Landström, 2016). As the forensic child interview typically plays a central role during abuse investigations, a poorly conducted interview could have a direct negative effect on the legal outcome. This is particularly problematic in sexual abuse cases as corroborative physical evidence is often unavailable (Diesen & Diesen, 2009). Without a credible testimony, guilty perpetrators might be acquitted and children risk being sent back to an abusive environment (Ernberg, Tidefors & Landström, 2016). Additionally, other children may be targeted if the perpetrator reoffends. Conducting high quality interviews that adhere to current research on children’s witness capabilities is therefore a vital component for ensuring both children’s safety and a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

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