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

Initial studies on the revised protocol show promising results in terms of children’s responsiveness to questions compared to interviews with the standard protocol (Ahern, Hershkowitz, Lamb, Blasbalg, & Winstanley, 2014, Hershkowitz et al., 2015; Hershkowitz, Lamb, & Katz, 2014). Presumably, building rapport could help create the trust and support needed for reluctant victims to open up and disclose details about their abuse. Further laboratory studies are nonetheless needed to examine direct effects and underlying mechanisms of rapport building on disclosure tendencies in settings analogous to forensic child interviews (Saywitz, Larson, Hobbs, & Wells, 2015).

Technological advances in forensic child interview training

Technological advances have also led to new and promising lines of research on forensic child interviewing using the NICHD protocol or similar evidence-based techniques. Researchers at Åbo University in Finland are developing computer software that simulates interviews with young children (Pompedda, Zappalà, & Santtila, 2015). The aim is to provide police interviewers the opportunity to interact to animated child characters (called avatars) in a naturalistic digital environment. The avatars are pre-programmed with background stories that can involve sexual abuse, and the interviewer’s task is to investigate what happened to the avatar. The avatars are programmed with research-based algorithms that correspond to how children typically respond to questions. For example, using invitations and directive questions leads to more correct responses and suggestive questions may elicit false details from the avatars. Experimental studies of this training software have yielded promising results. Trainees have shown improvement in their use of appropriate question types after just one hour of training. In Sweden, researchers have examined a similar digital interview environment where instructors (expert interviewers) have manual control over the animated child characters in the program. (Johansson, 2015). The instructor plays the role of the child in real time and his or her answers are then directly projected into the program through an avatar. Thus, the trainee sees and hears an animated child respond to his or her question in realistic manner. While prototype development is still underway, preliminary results indicate this could be a beneficial approach to forensic child interview training.

In Australia, Benson and Powell (2015) investigated the effects of using interactive web based course modules in forensic child interviewing, where police officers can refresh their knowledge online. In both field interviews and mock interviews with actors, officers adhered more closely to research-based guidelines after the web-based training, compared to before. The concept of easily accessible web-based training seems particularly promising given that regular feedback seems to help police officers stay on track and maintain the new techniques learned in NICHD training (Lamb et al., 2002a). Advanced technology could thus offer an exciting new way forward for practitioners to improve and maintain their forensic child interview skills.

To conclude, the NICHD protocol has helped improve the quality of police interviews with children around the globe. New research continues to investigate techniques for interviewing children who are reluctant to talk. Given that disclosing abuse can be incredibly difficult and daunting for children, this is a hurdle of utmost importance to overcome. At the same time, researchers and practitioners need to keep in mind the flawed nature of human memory, and find ways to encourage disclosures without inadvertently encouraging inaccurate testimony or false memories.



Ahern, E. C., Hershkowitz, I., Lamb, M. E., Blasbalg, U., & Winstanley, A. (2014). Support and reluctance in the pre-substantive phase of alleged child abuse victim investigative interviews: Revised versus standard NICHD protocol. Behavioural Sciences & the Law, 32, 762-774. doi: 10.1002/bsl.2149  

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Benson, M. S., & Powell, M. B. (2015). Evaluation of a comprehensive interactive training system for investigative interviewers of children. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 21, 309-322. doi: 10.1037/law0000052

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