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

Does use of the NICHD protocol affect children's testimony?

So far this paper has focused on how training influences police officers’ behaviour. The following section will discuss how use of the NICHD protocol can affect the interview outcome in terms of the children’s testimony. The results of this research have varied. Cyr and Lamb (2009) found an overall increase in the number of details provided by children when officers followed the NICHD protocol, compared to children’s responses in interviews conducted before NICHD training. Most importantly, they reported an increase in the number of details of central value for the investigation, such as information about the perpetrator's identity and the type of abuse. Other studies have not found an overall increase in the amount of details, but have found that after NICHD training, when officers do elicit information from children, it is more often in response to invitations (e.g., “Tell me more about this”) rather than other types of questions (e.g., Lamb et al., 2009; Cyr et al., 2012). Given that responses to invitations (compared to recognition-based question types) tend to be more reliable and accurate, this is a promising finding. Some studies have also reported a decrease in the number of details that are provided when officers do use poor interview techniques, including option-posing and suggestive questions (e.g., Lamb et al., 2009; Lamb, Sternberg, Orbach, Hershkowitz, Horowitz, & Esplin, 2002b). This may be an effect of the pre-substantive phase of the NICHD protocol, where interviewers provide ground rules, such as encouraging children to avoid guessing and to check with the interviewer if they do not understand a question.

It appears that interviewing children using the NICHD protocol can improve certain aspects of children’s testimonies. However, it is difficult to assesses the actual accuracy of children’s responses using field research, since neither interviewers nor researchers have access to an objective account of the events being discussed in the interview. To fill this gap, some researchers have started to examine the NICHD technique in controlled laboratory settings. Brown, Lamb, Lewis, Pipe, Orbach, and Wolfman (2013), for example, studied effects of the NICHD interview practice phase as well as differences in children’s accuracy in response to different question types (i.e. invitations, directive, option-posing and suggestive questions) in an experiment with school-aged children. The children participated in a staged event where they had their photograph taken while wearing costumes. Some weeks later, they were interviewed by NICHD trained research assistants about this experience as well as about a fictitious visit to a fire station. The children were asked questions about the fire station visit to see if they would report false details (analogous to situations in which children might report false details of a crime). Overall, the children were highly accurate in their responses. Still, a small number of children (approximately 11%) provided false details about the non-existent fire station visit, demonstrating the risk of obtaining false testimonies when questioning children about events that have not occurred.

Taken together, existing research seems to provide evidence in favour of investing in NICHD training programs. Not only does training typically improve police interview skills to align with best-practice guidelines, it may elicit more and better information from children. To date, much of the research in this area has taken place in field settings, meaning that it typically does not provide the level of experimental control that would be possible in a laboratory setting. Controlled laboratory studies on police officers’ behaviour after training could contribute towards filling some of the gaps in existing research. Further studies also need to be carried out in order to compare the effectiveness of the NICHD protocol to other evidence-based interview protocols intended for use with child victims.

Future lines of inquiry

Revised versus standard NICHD protocol

Although often effective, the NICHD protocol is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution (Brown et al., 2013). In particular, eliciting details from children who are reluctant to talk can still be difficult (Hershkowitz, Orbach, Lamb, Sternberg & Horowitz, 2006). Hershkowitz and colleagues (2015) addressed this issue in a recent revision of the NICHD protocol. A larger focus was placed on building rapport between the child and interviewer. The revised NICHD protocol has an expanded pre-substantive stage, which includes an initial rapport building stage before the introduction of ground rules. For the substantive stage, the revised protocol emphasises the importance of acknowledging the child’s emotions (“I can see that you find this difficult to talk about”) and providing non-suggestive support throughout the interview (e.g., “Thank you for sharing this information with me”). You can read the revised protocol at www.nichdprotocol.com.

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