Investigative Procedures in Allegations of Child Sexual Abuse

Part I: The Initial Criminal Investigation

John C. Wideman*

ABSTRACT: This is the first of a series of articles on investigative procedures in child sexual abuse.  The object of this series is to suggest how an investigation should be done correctly.  It is important that no assumptions be made prior to the investigation as to whether an actual incident has occurred.  Suggestions are given as to how to ensure an objective and accurate investigation.

General Investigative Procedures

If an investigation is done correctly, ideally there should only be indictments of provable cases of child sexual abuse.  Unfortunately, we live in a real world where real investigators conduct real investigations and make real errors in judgment, either through blind zeal or ignorance of proper procedures.   Not all investigators are trained.  In many places, persons assigned criminal investigative duties usually are taken from uniformed patrol positions and moved into conducting criminal investigations.  Some larger departments or agencies have internal schooling, but most investigators have to learn on the job.  The reason is that most of the 40,000 police agencies in the United States have less than 10 members.  Only about 40 state, county and municipal agencies have more than 1,000 personnel.(1)

Thus, most agencies cannot afford to pay for adequate training.  Further, child sexual abuse has unique qualities which lessen the probability that investigators will be trained.  Child sexual abuse cases are difficult, subject to error, time consuming, considered by many to be traumatic to children and sometimes embarrassing to the investigating officer.(2)  Also, child sexual abuse cases are seen in an uncompromising light by society, and the police, once abuse is assumed to be true, are expected to bring the hated offender to justice.

Our American society is just as uncompromising about individual rights and understands that an allegation of child sexual abuse will ruin that person's future whether the allegations are factual or not.  The police therefore are expected to be accurate when they finish the investigation and announce the results.  But, this does not always happen.  In one case, the police investigator made a news release naming the suspect before the completion of the investigation, before the indictment, and before any warrant was requested.(3)  The reason given by the investigating officer at trial was that the press was hounding him and that following the release, the press left him alone.

Some agencies consider child sexual abuse investigations simply another type of investigation to be handled by a generalist investigator. Because of the number of extremely small agencies in the United States these investigations may be handled by a patrol officer simply because no investigator exists on the force. Some state agencies expect their officers to move blithely from traffic patrol to burglaries to child sexual abuse cases without missing a beat.(4)  This attitude is hardly fair to the officers, but may even be less fair to the children and to persons falsely accused of such abuse.

The vast majority of the investigative literature available today invariably assumes that sexual abuse has occurred.(5)  Again, this is unfair to the field investigator who is placed in the position of determining whether an allegation is true.  Somehow, there is the implicit, but incorrect, understanding that a good investigator will be able to make that determination.  Few investigators have any understanding of basic psychology, abnormal psychology or the mechanics of interviewing child witnesses.  The usual literature on investigating child abuse cases is ominously silent about how to proceed after receipt of the initial allegation.

Responsible investigators can find local colleges which offer classes in psychology to help fill the void in their knowledge.  Law enforcement courses specifically oriented to child interview techniques are extremely rare, although there are several courses generally concerned with child sexual abuse investigations.  Many courses, however, degenerate into how-to courses for accomplishing the investigation as opposed to fine-tuning specific techniques required in the investigation process.

The investigator must always, however, keep in mind the following quote:

An alleged offender is sometimes considered guilty until proven innocent, in fact, and a number of men have served time in penal institutions because children or their parents interpreted simple affection as attempted intimacy or rape (Coleman, Butcher, & Carson, 1984).

The Initial Phase of the Investigation

The investigator hears the initial allegation of child sexual abuse from a variety of sources.  These include parents, relatives, neighbors, patrol officers, medical personnel, social workers, teachers or others who have been in contact with the child.  Make NO assumptions as to whether or not an actual incident has occurred.  The greatest problem in criminal investigations today is that investigators assume something happened and then set out to prove themselves right.  DO NOT BECOME A PRISONER OF YOUR INVESTIGATION!  First collect all the facts possible and then determine whether or not a crime has occurred and who may have committed it, if it did occur.  There is not an investigator alive today who has not had someone make a false complaint to him at some time in his career.

In child sexual abuse cases, however, there is reluctance on the part of criminal investigators to disbelieve a child.  Part of this is because of the inaccuracies in investigative literature of the last 5 years when child sexual abuse became a hot topic.  Some of these inaccuracies continue since literature in the field builds on the previous literature, and investigative literature is not submitted to the same rigorous examination as that of other professional literature (e.g. psychology, medicine, science).  Among those inaccuracies are beliefs that faulty descriptions, delayed, conflicting or unconvincing disclosure, knowledge of explicit sexual detail and denial somehow only indicate that the abuse actually did happen.  Yet, if these same problems existed in adult-related information, the information would be summarily dismissed as unreliable.  This dichotomy exists primarily because the average investigator has no idea how human memory functions, how children grow and learn, the inherent limitations in children's thought processes at various ages, and the limitations on children's verbal skills.

The investigator is forced to cope with a child on adult terms in an adult world.  What finally happens is that the investigator tries to conduct the investigation and interviews by adapting adult methods to the child.  This usually results in an unsuitable product and may ultimately so confuse the child as to jeopardize the case.

Following receipt of the initial allegation, the investigator makes an investigative plan.  This plan is simply a flexible method whereby the investigator makes a determination as to what he will have to do, how long will it take, what equipment and other resources will be needed, and how he will generally proceed.  The need for flexibility is obvious.  As the investigation proceeds and the data base enlarges, other interviews and investigation may become necessary.

Physical Evidence and Exigent Circumstances

In child sexual abuse cases, there is an impulse to rush directly to the child to get confirming evidence of the acts alleged.  But there are other steps you must take.  First, determine the type of act alleged and the time since the alleged act.  Obviously, in cases of forcible rape, sodomy, homicide or other violent crimes of recent origin, you need to preserve physical evidence.  The preservation of this evidence is often crucial to the identification of the actual offender.  Within the last couple of years, the use of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) identifiers has offered investigators a guarantee that if they can provide biological material of the offender and a suspect that science will identify the guilty and free the innocent.  While this looks promising, it is expensive and many jurisdictions are not willing to submit all their physical evidence for such evaluation.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) lab will do such tests, but has limited the types of submissions it will handle.(6)

Also understand that child sexual abuse cases rarely involve sexual intercourse or attempted sexual inter-course.(7)  Child sexual abuse usually involves manipulation of the child's genitals, with occasional manipulation of the offender's genitals or oral-genital contact.  Obviously, the type of act alleged and the time elapsed since the alleged act will determine the immediate steps to be taken.  Therefore, the allegation must be fully understood before beginning the investigation.

If these exigent circumstances exist and there is the possibility of critical physical evidence being destroyed, you must act promptly.  The usual steps must be taken to protect the crime scene.  In over 22 years experience, the author has never seen a ''virgin'' crime scene.  Probably one of the best conducted crime scenes involved the April 1986 FBI Dade County shootout in which two agents were killed and several wounded.  But, here again, the resources were available and the circumstances permitted such response.  In most child abuse cases, you will be lucky to have much more available to you than a uniformed unit and possibly another investigator.

Look for the usual trace evidence at the scene of the alleged crime (e.g. body fluids, hair, fiber evidence, fingerprints, clothing, bedding).  Give special consideration to items which might have been used in the alleged assault (e.g. lubricants, condoms, dildos, foreign objects(8)).  Photograph these in situ, store in accordance with laboratory recommendations and departmental policy, properly marked for identification, and secure in the usual evidentiary chain.  Promptly take those items requiring further forensic laboratory examination to the laboratory.  Age is detrimental to certain types of fragile evidence such as body fluids.  Observe the usual precautions, cited in extensive literature and available from the FBI and elsewhere, regarding body fluids and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Medical Examination of Alleged Victims

In cases of violent assault and sexual abuse, the child will probably require medical intervention of some type.  This will take place when the child is taken to a medical facility upon initial complaint or as a result of parental intervention, assuming that one or the other of the parents is not the offender.  Where the child suffers physical trauma sufficient to warrant medical intervention, insure that the attending physician understands that a sexual assault may have occurred and that rape kit evidence is necessary.  Most hospitals have rape kits for the preservation of evidence related to allegations of sexual assault.  If not, you should provide such a kit to the medical facility.  Kits are available commercially from several sources at reasonable prices.

In those cases where physical trauma may not be present, such as in cases of manipulation of the genitals, make a value judgment as to the need for a physical examination by a physician.  For instance, if the allegation is that the child was "touched" on the genitals through clothing there is little likelihood that there will be physical evidence on the child's body.  However, if the allegation is that a finger or other object was inserted in the vagina or rectum of the child or that the offender ejaculated in the child's mouth, then there may be evidence.  You may be asked by a concerned parent if such an examination is necessary both from the standpoint of confirming the parent's worst fears, and from concern for subjecting a young child to such an examination.  Proceed in accordance with departmental policy, or in its absence, confer with the prosecuting attorney for guidance.  Most prosecutors will want an examination simply to rule in or rule out specific elements of the allegation.

Most importantly, begin by instructing persons associated with the case not to discuss the matter with the child.  This is particularly true of the child's family members (e.g. parents, siblings, stepparents).  They do not need to talk to the child about the incident pending the completion of the investigation.  It may be very hard for them to avoid this, however, and you must stress that they may jeopardize any prosecution of the case by talking to the child.  Medical professionals are another story.  They will insist on taking a history from the child.  This history usually includes a recitation of the alleged event(s) in addition to the standard information sought.  For this reason, if possible, interview the child before the child is seen by a medical professional.  Also, chose a physician who is experienced in child sexual abuse matters.  In the alternative, a pediatrician should be consulted.  The last choice is a general practitioner.

Consult with the practitioner before you have contact with the child.  Explain the circumstances of the case, the allegations, and the story related by the child to you if this interview has already taken place.  If no interview of the child has taken place, then give the available facts to the practitioner.  If the practitioner insists on taking an extensive physical history from the child, the history should be limited to non allegation matters.  If the practitioner questions the child about the incident, the practitioner places himself in the position of being the investigator and making a determination of whether or not sexual abuse has occurred.  In one case,(9) a physician found no abnormalities upon physically examining the putative victim and announced that the child's version of events of having been touched on the vagina was probably true just because he found nothing wrong.  It simply did not occur to him that the absence of physical trauma was also consistent with nothing having happened at all.

The practitioner should also, in cases where penetration of the vagina or anus is alleged, inquire into the history of the child having nonabusive penetrations (e.g. child's own fingers, playmates fingers, objects during "sex play" with peers).  Since female children reach menarche at various ages, where menarche is conceivably possible and tampons possibly used, that information should be collected as well.  All of this information helps to insure a complete, comprehensive investigation and may, at times, preclude certain specious defenses by suspects.

The examination by the practitioner should be in accordance with the accepted local medical standards in force at that time and consideration given to not traumatizing the child.  In one case, a physician testified that he examined an alleged sexual abuse victim by placing his little finger in the victim's introitus and asking the victim if that was how it felt when the alleged abuser committed the act.(10)  The victim complained of significant pain and indicated very readily to the doctor that the incident did not feel like that.  That same physician then reinterviewed the patient, who had alleged penetration, and the victim then changed her story to accommodate the finding of no penetration.

if significant findings are present (e.g. lacerated hymen, rectal scar tissue, bruises) the finding should be photographed to preserve the evidence for later use.  Many physicians and certainly most major medical facilities have such photographic capability.  Much tissue damage is of a very transient nature and normal children heal rapidly.

Investigation in the Absence of Exigent Circumstances and Physical Evidence

The most likely case will involve no exigent circumstances and little, or no, physical evidence.  In the absence of exigent circumstances you should next interview the persons who have had contact with the child and to whom the child has related the allegation of abuse.  This accomplishes two critical purposes.  The child is not unnecessarily interviewed and the persons so interviewed will give you some idea of what contact has been made with the child about the allegation.

Carefully interview these persons to determine the exact nature of the allegations and the exact wording used by the child.  Use as neutral an approach and interview technique as possible.  The inflammatory nature of the allegation may prompt some interviewees to insert their own biases into what they tell you.  Also, depending upon whom the child has accused, friends or opponents of the alleged offender may again offer their biases in the process.

A possible approach is to track the accusation from the first report until it was reported to the investigating agency.  Sometimes this will involve only one person.  In other cases, it may involve as many as five or ten persons.  Investigators usually track backward from their receipt of the report to the first reporter.  To do so usually results in a number of persons being reinterviewed to update other information obtained from earlier reporters.

When the first reporter is interviewed, be sure to obtain all information concerning the circumstances of the revelation as well as the content of the revelation.  If the first reporter is an adult, the usual interview techniques, properly applied, will achieve the desired results.  However, often times, the first reporter may be another child.  This will put you in the position of having to interview a crucial child witness about the allegations of another child.  Many times the chain will be "Mary told Jane who told Alice who told her mother" or something equivalent.

Interviewing the First Reporter

The first reporter of an allegation is a critical witness.  It is the first reporter who first heard what was said by the putative child victim.  You are now in a position where the information is the least affected by transmission through other parties.  For this reason, it is essential that the first reporter be carefully interviewed so that the witness is not swayed by what you say.  This requires significant skill.  You should also consider what conversations or other information the first reporter may have had that may be incorporated by the this reporter into the original incident.

In all interviews, first establish rapport.  Many people have never been formally interviewed by a law enforcement officer.  Reduce the awkwardness of this first conversation.  Some investigators use their badge and credentials as the establishment of rapport, feeling that the authority of their position will somehow magically open the information door.

The rapport conversation should be general and noncontroversial.  First ask easy questions which require no thought or demonstration of imagination.  Don't contradict the person's answer, but indicate that you are willing to listen to what the person has to say.  This will demonstrate that you are there to listen, and not to control the person during the interview.

Sit near the person, preferably side by side without an intervening object but be conscious of not invading the personal space.  Ease into the subject with a carefully preplanned approach to the questions.  Let the interviewee warm up to the interview before hitting him with the really difficult questions.  During this time, evaluate the interviewee's mental and emotional state to determine the language to use during the interview.  This evaluation will also help explain to the prosecutor where and how the witness will fit into the scheme of the prosecution.

It is a good idea to tape interviews.  There are many verbal nuances which may be caught by a tape recorder which would be missed by even the most experienced interviewer intent on taking notes.  Many investigators dislike doing this for fear something will be said or done during the interview which will make the witness unsuitable or will give defense attorneys a chink in the armor of the case.  In addition, interviews which are tape recorded will ultimately have to be transcribed by someone.  Sometimes the secretarial power is not available to do this.

One psychological reason for taping is that if you take notes you indicate important areas since you will write down notes contemporaneously with the verbal statement.  This may cause the interviewee to grade matters by the note-taking interest and influence future answers.  With a tape recorder, everything appears to be of uniform historical interest.  When a tape recorder is used, the interviewee usually quickly forgets about it and ignores it.  At the end of the interview, rewind a few inches of tape and play it back to make sure that the recorder operated properly during the interview.

Many jurisdictions use tape recorders improperly.  The investigators interview the witnesses and then tape record a question and answer statement which contains only some specific information.  This may give rise to later questions about what the initial interview was about and why only the information favorable to the State's case was in the taped statement.  If it is later discovered that exculpatory information was given to the investigator and the investigator failed to report it could compromise the case.  In one case,(11) a taped statement provided critical information from a hostile witness regarding whether the victim had a firearm.  The witness, a friend of the victim, referred to "the gun" instead of "a gun."  The defendant was acquitted on grounds of self defense.

Adult First Reporters

After first establishing rapport with the interviewee and obtaining necessary biographical data, broach the subject of the first report.  During the biographical data collection, also tacitly inquire as to any nonobvious family or blood relationship between the putative victim and the first reporter.  You may, or may not, have to define the area of inquiry to the interviewee.  If this is necessary, the definition should be as neutral as possible.  For instance:

Mrs. Jones, I am here in response to information that Amy Green told you something about an incident involving her.

The introductory question should be as general as possible to elicit a narrative response from the interviewee without indicating your possession of other knowledge or suggesting an outcome for the investigation.  Every situation is different, but some suggested openings are:

Mrs. Jones, what exactly was it that Amy Green told you?
Mrs. Jones, tell me what Amy Green told you.

If there is sufficient ambiguity as to the reason for the investigation, you may need to provide a more detailed question including that the information concerned someone touching her or similar information.  However, this will be the exception and not the norm.

Have the interviewee tell you what happened in free recall narrative.  If this cannot be taped, take notes during the interview, trying, where possible, to write down the exact language used by both the putative victim and the first reporter.  Concentrate on what and how the first reporter is telling you the information.

Following the free recall narrative, go over the chronological sequence of events narrated by the first reporter and fill in the obvious blanks.  As all investigators are aware, witnesses rarely give the detail required by the investigator.  This is usually because the witness assumes knowledge by the investigator which is common to the witness' knowledge.  Examples of this are local place names, street names of local persons, distances, idiosyncratic names for items, bodily functions or body parts, etc.

The matters to focus on are:

1. The exact circumstances of the first reporter's contact with the child (e.g. time, date, location, others present, any physical factors such as malnutrition, injury, fatigue, or fright).
2. The relationship of the first reporter to the child if it is not otherwise obvious.
3. Was the report prompted by the first reporter, or some other person or thing, or was the report unprompted and spontaneous?  If the response was prompted, determine what part the prompt played in the response.  In some school systems, there are sexual abuse awareness programs.  After some of these programs, children are invited to visit privately with one of the presenters to discuss anything the child might want to discuss about possible abuse.
4. Why the child would report to the first reporter as opposed to someone else?
5. The apparent emotional state of the child.
6. What the exact conversation was between the child and the first reporter.  As important as what the child said, is what the first reporter said, did and reacted, when given the information by the child.

The exact circumstances at the time of the first report are critical because they demonstrate what external influences, if any, were present on the child at the time of the report of abuse.  We are all aware that such conditions as malnutrition, injury, fatigue and fright make information from sources less reliable.  In addition, the hour of the day, the particular physical location and the presence of certain other persons may provide reasons why the statement was made by the child or give you some general idea as to the reliability of the statement.

The relationship between the first reporter and the child is also important.  A child who is sexually abused by a parent may elect to tell a teacher or some other non family person.  If the person is an absolute stranger, further inquiry may be needed to determine why the statement was made.  If the first reporter is a parent, be aware of certain parental influences, particularly in instances involving divorce actions.  In most reported cases of child sexual abuse, the offender is known to the victim.  Thus, statistically at least, this may serve as a guide for why some person was told about an offense as opposed to some other person.

On the other hand, the relationship may also indicate that there is reason to view the allegation with extreme caution.  Again, this is usually, but not exclusively, in marital disputes.  It is not unheard of for one parent to accuse the other parent of child sexual abuse to gain leverage in the domestic fight.

Next ascertain what caused the child to report an allegation of sexual abuse?  Prompts often play an important part in reports of child sexual abuse.  The prompts themselves may be the genesis of the report as opposed to any real event.  Children are socialized by adults as well as their peers.  Also, they see adults as authority figures and persons to be honored, respected and pleased.  These same adults, through verbal and nonverbal means, tell the children what pleases them and what does not.  Thus, the importance of the relationship and the prompt in combination become apparent.  The report may have been as a result of trust or as a result of wanting to please.

Some of the child abuse prevention programs (often called by names like "Good Touch, Bad Touch," "Red Light, Green Light," or "CAPP") are conducted by persons who are not well-trained in the area of child sexual abuse.  These persons often are not screened for the job to determine their objectivity, or their psychological fitness for such positions.  Obviously, a person who was sexually abused as a child, never reported it to anyone, and, who, today carries extreme resentment about child sexual abuse, may not be a proper person to conduct such training for impressionable children.  The programs also make use of unpaid volunteers, who are unskilled at this job and who could make serious errors harmful to an investigation.  First reports from these situations must be carefully and completely screened for indicia of prompting inaccurate or false reports.

The underlying reason for the child making the allegation to the first reporter is important.  Examine this in context with the identity of the alleged perpetrator.  If it does not make sense, be alert to the possibility that the information is not accurate.  Of course, later information may clarify what seems like an illogical combination of events.

The apparent emotional state of the child may give some indication of the reason for the allegation.  If the child was obviously emotionally distraught, consider that the child might have been mad or frustrated as opposed to being fearful or sad.  If the child was nonchalant, casual or ambivalent, then perhaps the child was telling about a fictitious event, or the alleged activity was not unpleasant.

Not all child victims of physically painless abuse consider what happened to them to be "bad."  This may be because the child enjoys special considerations such as a room of his own, more toys, advantages over siblings or other children, the close affection and attention of an adult or other situations which the child perceives as desirable.  Thus, the relating of the story may be as a result of innocent conversation by the child or the entrustment by the child of a peer with the child's most important secret.  Obviously, no extremes of emotion would be expected in a situation.  On the other hand, the lack of emotion may indicate that the child is relating a fictitious event.

Finally, develop the substance of the conversation.  Most people relate their summary of a conversation when asked about what was said at a specific time.  Sometimes, investigators make the mistake of using the following question to affirm that the exact words are being used: "Is that what was said?"  Obviously, the question is too ambiguous and the interviewee can answer honestly, yes, even if a summary is being given.  A better question would be: "Were those her exact words?" or "Were those your exact words to her?"  This question usually elicits an affirmative answer or some equivocation. In the event of equivocation, inquire further to clarify the event.

The exact words used in a conversation, particularly between a child and an adult first reporter, may be important in determining the possibility of learned or suggested memory on the part of the child.  If the adult has misunderstood something the child has said or the child has done, the adult unintentionally may have introduced an assumption to the child, part or all of which the child may have adopted.  Repeated questioning by the adult, or inartfully crafted questions by the adult, may have reinforced the assumption.  If you know this before interviewing the child, you are at an advantage and may be able, through carefully worded questions, to ascertain the truth.

Children use words, sometimes inaccurately, to explain concepts.  If the concept is vague or unfamiliar to them, they may choose the wrong descriptors in an effort to state what they are trying to state.  If the adult is not familiar with the individual child, and that child's mental maturation and method of expressing concepts, the adult may completely misunderstand what the child is trying to relate.  This can create investigative problems on several fronts ranging from no real impropriety involved to an allegation of the wrong nature of abuse.

Equally important is what were the first reporter's physical and verbal reactions to the report.  Most people will give their honest answer when asked how they reacted.  Also, if they are lay persons, they probably will react with disgust, revulsion and horror.  Thus, they have already told the child certain things about the report.  If they then interrogated the child in depth concerning the report, they may have thoroughly contaminated the report with their own biases.  The investigator should know how contaminated or uncontaminated is the report before attempting to interview the child.

If there were others present at the revelation by the child, obtain their identities from the first reporter. They should all then be interviewed to compare and contrast the information presented by them with the information presented by the first reporter. Determine what conversations, if any, were held between and among any of the other persons present and the first reporter and the child.  An investigator will find sometimes that a conversation was held between the other persons and the first reporter after the child was dismissed.  If the other persons present were children, then a decision has to be made regarding how to progress in the investigation.

Whenever possible adults should be interviewed before children.  This is not because adults are necessarily more reliable, but because the investigator is usually better able to interview and obtain information from adults.  The object at this stage of the investigation is to obtain the maximum amount of reliable information about how the allegation came about.  A collateral matter is to determine from the first reporter, if possible, exactly what was reported by the child.

Child First Reporters

If the first reporter is a child, proceed appropriately.  It is just as important to interview child witnesses properly as it is to interview child victims properly.  The first reporter child may also be a witness to the reported event.  Also, the investigation may reveal that this child was also a victim of similar abuse by the same perpetrator.  For these reasons, the interview phase involving children is critical.

Prior to any interview of a child witness, apprise the prosecutor of the case and your intent to interview the child witness.  The prosecutor may have special requirements or considerations based on case law or departmental policy to consider.  Also, the prosecutor may have a policy regarding the threshold for accusations of child sexual abuse.  In at least one state,(12) many intrafamily instances of child sexual abuse are referred to the Department of Human Services which counsels the family as opposed to trying and incarcerating the abusive parent.  Steps are taken to ensure that the child is not further abused, but there is a theory that the disruption of the family is more traumatic to the child than working with the nuclear family to stop the abuse.  If the case is to be referred as opposed to being prosecuted, you may want to reconsider whether scarce investigative resources should be used on what will ultimately be a noncriminal matter.

Consult the parents of the child witness/first reporter to be interviewed.  Parents are extremely protective of their children.  Many do not want their children involved in any action which would bring notoriety to the child or create public interest in the child.  This is particularly true of sex offenses.  If you explain the importance of the child's information to the parents and explain that the investigation is in its initial stage, the parents will probably go along with having their child interviewed.  Avoid threatening to have the whole family subpoenaed before the Grand Jury.  In areas of smaller population where most people know each other, you many be able to find someone else on the force to intercede with the parents.

There is a tendency on the part of investigators to have witnesses come down to the station to be interviewed.  This is usually because the investigator has a large case load and any time relief is usually welcome.  However, with child witnesses it is usually preferable to interview the child away from the police environment to avoid the obvious influence.  Also, wear civilian clothes and don't openly wear firearms or other weapons.

The child can be interviewed at home.  If the child is interviewed at school, there is usually peer pressure to tell all the schoolmates why the policeman was there talking to him.  If it is unavoidable then the best will have to made of the situation.  Most children can be interviewed at home after school or on the weekend.

Try to interview the child alone, without the parents present, although if the children are young, the parents may not permit this.  Use a neutral room such as the living room or the den, as long as there are no distractions such as televisions or radios playing, other siblings or friends playing in the house, or distracting toys and games around.

Record the interview on video tape.  This is not always possible or available to many police agencies.  Audio tape recording, however, is readily available to everyone.  The investigator can record the interview with, or without, the knowledge of the witness.  This may be subject to variations in state laws or departmental policy which should be followed.  The tape recorder should be of good quality and a good microphone should be purchased.  Children being interviewed often speak in very low, soft voices in contrast to what they do on the playground.  The equipment used should be capable of picking up such voices with sufficient clarity that they are easily transcribed later by the office secretary.(13)

Begin the interview by telling the child, in simple terms, your identity and what you do.  "Tommy, my name is John Doe.  I am a police officer and I do investigations."  Try to establish rapport which can be used to get biographical information about the witness.  For instance, an introductory conversation might go like this:

Q. How old are you Tommy?
A. 9 years old.
Q. What school do you go to?
A. Anytown Elementary.
Q. What grade are you in?
A. Third grade.
Q. What's your teacher's name?
A. Mrs. Smith.
Q. Do you have some favorite things you study at school?
A. We ... science I guess.
Q. Science.  Is that a hard subject to learn about?
A. Not for me.  I like it.
Q. Good for you.

Then work your way into the interview through the necessary association.  If the alleged victim is a schoolmate of the child first reporter, the introductory questions can orient toward school.  If the alleged victim is a neighbor, and not a schoolmate, the questions can flow from school to the neighborhood, perhaps focusing on after school or on the weekends.

One big consideration with young children is that they cannot sit still for long periods of time.  It may be necessary to spend an inordinate amount of time to interview just one witness.  The younger the child, the shorter the span of attention.  With the possible exception of long surveillances, patience is never more a virtue than here.  You must gently bring the child witness back around to the subject at hand after the child strays off onto other subjects, has to go to the bathroom, or needs a drink of water.

We must face the fact that some child witnesses are simply not suitable because of intellect, maturity, physical defect, mental defect or other reasons for use as witnesses in a court of law.  While you do not make that final determination, you are a valuable resource in apprising the prosecutor, early on, of potential problems in this regard.


(1) George D. Eastman and Esther M. Eastman, Eds., Municipal Police Administration (Washington, DC: International City Management Association, 1969),  p. 1.  [Back]
(2) Testimony of investigating officer, State v. Cottle, Circuit Court of Roane County, West Virginia, at Spencer, WV, 87-F-21, September 1989.  A prominent local physician was accused of molesting six different females, ages 8 to 11, on different occasions.  [Back]
(3) Ibid.  [Back]
(4) This is true at least of the West Virginia State Police, who have no separate investigative division.  All officers are uniformed and investigate virtually all crimes under the state code which are reported to them.  There is a criminal investigative section to which officers are assigned on temporary duty, but the mission of that section is primarily drug interdiction and major crimes investigation.  [Back]
(5) For example, Michael A. Hertica, "Police Interviews of Sexually Abused Children," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, April 1987, pp.12-16.  Hertica relies on Summit's "accommodation syndrome."  Or, Doris Stevens and Lucy Berliner, "Special Techniques for Child Witnesses," monograph, (Washington, DC: Center for Women Policy Studies), undated, 15 pages.  [Back]
(6) As with any submission to the FBI Laboratory, call first if you do not know for sure.  The DNA submission policy was reported in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, March 1989, page 23.  [Back]
(7) James C. Coleman, James N. Butcher, and Robert C. Carson, Abnormal Psychology and Modern Life (Hardcover) (7th ed.: Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman and Company, 1984), p. 469 citing H. E. Adams and J. Chioto, "Sexual Deviations" in H. K Adams and P. B. Sutker (eds.) Comprehensive Handbook of Psychopathology (Hardcover)(Hardcover) (New York: Plenum, 1984).  [Back]
(8) In one case investigated by the author, a ball type deodorant stick container was used as an impromptu dildo and, upon closer examination, was found to be covered with body fluids, pubic hair and lubricant.  [Back]
(9) State v. Cottle, testimony of examining physician.  [Back]
(10) Ibid, testimony of a second examining physician.  [Back]
(11) State v. Edgar Mahon, Circuit Court of Mingo County, WV, at Williamson, WV, April 1987.  [Back]
(12) West Virginia.  [Back]
(13) One of my secretaries when I was a Federal agent told me that she felt that all investigators should have to transcribe at least 50 hours of tapes before they were ever allowed to conduct a taped interview.  [Back]

[Part I]  [Part II]  [Part III]  Part IV[Part V]

* John Wideman is an Attorney at Law and can be contacted at Wideman & Associates, Inc., PO Box 507, St. Albans, WV 25177.  [Back]

[Back to Volume 1, Number 4]  [Other Articles by this Author]

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