In forensic interviews, where there are allegations of child sexual abuse, it is imperative that interviewers incorporate the current Professional Standards of Care to obtain forensically sound information from the alleged child victim. Interviews that produce unreliable information present significant risk to both the alleged victim as well as perpetrator. Those falsely accused suffer irreparable damage; the risks are equally significant if a perpetrator is allowed to continue to offend, simply because the interviewer used techniques that undermined the forensic reliability and credibility of the child’s statements.
In most Civil, Criminal, and Family Law cases involving child sexual abuse victims, there are often no witnesses to substantiate the abuse, let alone observe the identification of the perpetrator. Furthermore, there is rarely physical evidence or specific medical findings to substantiate sexual abuse in child victims. Instead, the court and fact finders rely on interviews with the child to substantiate allegations of child sexual abuse. Unfortunately, credible information from alleged victims is often contaminated, by well-intended police officers and trained interviewers.
The Standard of Care for the Forensic Interview of Alleged Child Sexual Abuse Victims.
There are a number of investigative interviews that have been developed. The most widely researched and validated interview protocol was developed by the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and is called the NICHD Investigative Interview Protocol. The protocol has been translated into more than a dozen languages and has been endorsed or mandated by investigative agencies around the world. Current professional standards all concur that the most credible information from young children is obtained when the interviewer allows the child to narrate the events of the alleged abuse. This contrasts with interviewers engaging in numerous questions that can potentially introduce new information to the alleged victim, and result in information from the child that is not forensically reliable. Thus, in my role as an expert, I also evaluate how the interview process did or did not conform to these Standards of Care.
Professional Standards also indicate that interviewers should avoid bias. To alleviate bias, interviewers should address multiple hypotheses in their interviews with the child. Such hypotheses should address, at a minimum, two possibilities: one, that the child has been sexually abused; and two, that the child has not been the victim of sexual assault. The interviewer should also consider multiple hypotheses regarding the identity of the perpetrator.
Utilizing a Forensic Expert to Evaluate the Reliability of the Alleged Victim’s Statements.
While it is common for the Prosecution or Plaintiff attorney to use an expert to describe typical victim disclosure patterns or to explain the research to the court regarding the credibility of child sexual abuse victims, it is less common for the Defense or Defendant to obtain an expert in such cases to evaluate the alleged victim’s statements.
Issues to be Evaluated by the Expert.
When I am obtained as an expert by either the Prosecution/Defense or the Plaintiff/Defendant to evaluate the credibility of an alleged child sexual abuse victim, I evaluate a number of issues that contribute to obtaining credible statements from children. Ultimately it is the court’s role to address the issue of whether a particular defendant sexually abused the child in question. The research indicates witnesses as young as three years old, when interviewed correctly, can make credible reports of sexual abuse. A qualified forensic expert can provide valuable assistance to the court in evaluating the process of obtaining information from the child; as well as the impact of that process on the reliability and credibility of the child’s statements.
In my role as an expert evaluating the reliability and credibility of victim’s statements, I employ the same criteria whether I am hired by the Prosecution or Defense. I begin by reviewing both the police records as well as the process in which the child disclosed the abuse. Were there multiple interviews with the child prior to the videotaped interview? If so, these previous interviews may have contaminated the child’s statements. I also obtain the victim’s medical and school records, as well as police and social service records to assess the consistency of the child’s statements over time, as well as to assess any presence of behavioral problems both prior to, and after, the victim’s Disclosure.
The Age and Development of the Child.
All the forensic interviewing models agree that considering the age and development of the child is essential. According to Lamb and colleagues (2015), “Age is the most important determinant of children’s memory capacity.” A child’s age and developmental abilities influence his or her perception of an experience and the amount of information that they can store in long-term memory (Pipe and Salmon, 2002). Infants and toddlers can recall experiences, as demonstrated through behavioral reactions to people, objects, and environments; however, these early memories are not associated with verbal descriptions.
Even as they begin to develop their language capabilities, young children are less able to make sense of unfamiliar experiences, have a more limited vocabulary, and are less accustomed to engaging in conversations about past experiences than older children. As children age, their attention span improves, and they are better prepared to comprehend and describe their experiences verbally. This, in turn, allows children to store more information and allows them to discuss remembered events with others, which consolidates and strengthens memories. Children of all ages are more likely to recall salient and personally experienced details rather than peripheral details (Perona, Bottoms, and Sorenson, 2006).
Very young children find it difficult to focus their attention and to search their memory effectively when interviewed. They may simply respond to recognized words or simple phrases without considering the entire question, and they are unable to monitor their comprehension or answers to questions (Lamb et al., 2015). As children grow older, both natural development and knowledge gained from school improve their skills.
Remembering an experience does not ensure that a child will be able to describe it for others. Forensic interviews are challenging for children, as they involve different, unusual vocabulary and an unfamiliar demand for detail. Young children may use words before they completely understand their meaning and may continue to confuse even simple concepts and
terms such as “tomorrow”, “after”, “before”, “a lot,” or “a long time.” As children mature, they acquire the ability to use words in a more culturally normative way, although terminology for sexual encounters, internal thoughts, and feelings, and particularly forensic and legal matters may be beyond their grasp (Walker, 2013). Forensic interviewers and those who evaluate the statements that children make in a legal context would do well to appreciate the unusual and extraordinary demands made on child witnesses.
Although concerns about younger children’s verbal and cognitive abilities are well recognized, the challenges of effectively interviewing adolescents are often overlooked. Because adolescents look much like adults, forensic interviewers, and multidisciplinary team members may fail to appreciate that adolescents vary in their verbal and cognitive abilities. It is essential to build rapport, provide interview instructions, and ensure the adolescent comprehends the questions (Walker,2013). Adolescents want to appear competent, and may be reluctant to ask for assistance. Forensic interviewers and investigators must guard against unreasonably high expectations for teenage witnesses and need to ensure a supportive approach, and avoid complex language unfamiliar to the adolescent.
In evaluating the interview process, I specifically review both the child’s statements to others prior to the videotaped statement as well as during the videotaped interview. In doing so, I look for any potential evidence of leading, suggestive, or repetitive questioning that could have affected the child’s statements. Such questions are a violation of the current Standard of Care.
The current Standard of Care indicates that interviewers should refrain from asking leading questions; such questions introduce new information to the child and undermine the credibility of the child’s responses. Questioning where the interviewer assumes information or words that the child has not provided or that introduce new information to the child is not forensically sound.
Extensive research indicates that young children are subject to suggestibility which refers to errors in memory that arise when the child is exposed to information that is false, or is exposed to social pressure from the interviewer that encourages particular types of answers. It is also generally accepted as a Standard of Practice that young children are highly susceptible to assuming their answers are wrong if the interviewer repeatedly asks the same question over and over again. In such cases, most children, even over the age of ten, try to give a response that they think is more acceptable to the adult.
We also know that interviews that last too long become fatiguing for children and present the risk of the child saying anything to end the interview. It is therefore important that the interviewer conduct the interview in a manner that recognizes the young child’s short attention span.
The current professional Standard of Care also questions the use of media such as anatomical dolls and anatomical drawings in interviews with alleged child sexual abuse victims. Studies indicate that the use of anatomical dolls can particularly elicit high rates of both false positive and false negative statements from young children (Bruck, Maggie, Stephen Ceci, Emmet Francoeur, and Ashley Renick, 1995; and Bruck, Maggie, Stephen Ceci, and Emmet Francoeur, 2000).
For a witness of any age to recall an event, the facts under investigation need to be encoded into memory. If an event is not encoded due to inability, inattention, or divided attention tasks, the memory is not preserved and is not subject to accurate recall. Esplin (2014) indicates that scientific reliability refers to the trustworthiness of the evidence, not to the honesty or credibility of a witness. Statements can be unreliable due to various processes, including decay of memory, distortion, and external influences during the reconstruction process. Statements can also be contaminated if they are obtained by procedures that are suggestive in nature. From a scientific perspective, reliability issues are a foundation to an examination of the validity and the credibility of the child’s statements.
About the author: Jane K. McNaught is a clinical and forensic psychologist who has been in private practice for over 35 years. Dr. McNaught has specialized over the course of her career in interviewing as well as diagnosing children alleging sexual abuse. She has presented at over 50 national and international conferences to therapists, social workers, attorneys, and judges on a variety of mental health topics. She has also been frequently hired as an expert witness to evaluate the statements of alleged child sexual abuse victims within the context of family law, civil cases, and criminal cases.