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

A heavy burden is consequently placed on the forensic child interviewer. They need to skilfully help victims talk at length about their experiences whilst avoiding the risk of eliciting false details. Simultaneously, they need to investigate if the report could be unfounded. Researchers and practitioners have therefore developed a number of evidence-based interviewing guidelines to help with this difficult task. In this article, we will take a closer look at one of the most commonly used research-based techniques for interviewing children; the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) protocol (Lamb, Orbach, Hershkowitz, Esplin, & Horowitz, 2007). Secondly, we discuss novel research programs and innovative tech-based solutions to improve the quality of forensic child interviewing. The future appears to hold a number of exciting new developments for the field.

The NICHD protocol is a concrete step-by-step guide for interviews with child sexual abuse victims (you can download the protocol at www.nichdprotocol.com). It has been translated into eleven different languages and implemented by law enforcement agencies (at national or district levels) in fourteen different countries (e.g., Canada, the USA, Japan, Israel, Finland, and Sweden; see La Rooy et al., 2015). In brief, the protocol divides the forensic child interview into three phases; the pre-substantive phase, the substantive phase and the closure phase (e.g., Lamb et al., 1996). The pre-substantive phase begins with an introduction (e.g., “My name is… and I work with the police”) and an explanation of ground rules (e.g., that the child should not try to guess and that it is okay to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand”). The pre-substantive phrase continues with a rapport building and interview practice stage where the interviewer tries to familiarize the child with the interview format (e.g., by asking the child about fun recent events). The purpose is to provide the child with practice in responding to the current type of  questions, as the forensic child interview format differs from the way typical conversations are carried out. The interviewer thereafter transitions to the substantive phase of the interview by asking open-ended questions about the incident under investigation (e.g., “I understand that something has happened to you, tell me everything about that”) and encourages the child to elaborate (e.g., “Tell me more”). Specific questions (e.g., “Did he do something to you?”) should be postponed as long as possible and suggestive or leading questions (e.g., “Did he hit you?”) avoided completely. Prior to ending the interview, the interviewer is encouraged to ask questions about the child’s previous disclosure of the crime (e.g., “Have you talked to anyone else about this?”). This is followed by the closure phase, where the child is thanked for their cooperation and asked questions about a neutral topic for a few minutes (e.g., “What are you going to do this afternoon?”). The setup for training in the NICHD protocol varies between countries, but police officers typically undergo a five-day field training course in which officers participate in both active training workshops (e.g., role playing child interviews) and lectures on child development and investigative interviewing (Lamb et al., 2008).

Can NICHD training improve police interviewer skills?

Researchers have measured whether police officers’ interview skills improve after NICHD field training by examining the type of questions used in real forensic child interviews before and after training. Questions are typically classified into four different categories. For example, imagine that an interviewer wanted to acquire information about the colour of a toy dinosaur. He or she could use: (1) Invitations (e.g., “Tell me more about the dinosaur…”), (2) Directive questions (e.g., “What colour was the dinosaur?”) (3) Option-posing questions (e.g., “Was the dinosaur blue or pink?”) and (4) Suggestive questions (e.g., “The dinosaur was pink, wasn’t it?”) (see Lamb et al., 1996). Laboratory studies have demonstrated that invitations and directive questions are associated with more detailed and accurate responses from children (e.g., Bruck & Ceci, 1999) and are therefore seen as preferable to option-posing or suggestive questions.

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