Identifying and Correcting Problems With
Forensic Interviews of Alleged Child Sexual Abuse Victims: A Holistic
Kenneth R. Pangborn, MS*
ABSTRACT: Forensic interviewers are inadequately trained to
conduct child sexual abuse interviews. A poorly conducted
interview can change the child’s recall of events. This article
suggests ways to improve forensic interviewing techniques, the interview
environment, and the training of interviewers. It describes major
problems in the way many interviews are conducted and recommends ways to
increase the reliability of children’s statements and assure quality
In the 1980s there was a
substantial increase in reporting of child sexual abuse allegations in
cases all across the United States. Media attention to highly
charged cases, such as the Jordan, Minnesota incident and the McMartin
preschool trials, rode the wave of popular and media hysteria. The
result led to intense criticism of the methods used by those conducting
the interviews. Articles by attorneys criticized the heavy-handed
and leading questions used by the interviewers. The McMartin case
was notable in the way the defense was able to demonstrate that the
procedures used by Kee MacFarlane of Children's Institute International
were faulty.1 The videos of the child interviews in
these cases provided ammunition for defense attorneys who criticized
these techniques. The problems outlined in this article aren’t
confined to the United States, but appear to be common throughout much
of the world.
The number of reported
incidents of child abuse in the United States is now roughly about 3.6
million assaults per year (National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect,
Training of police and child protective
investigators since the 1990s has improved with respect to the
heavy-handed leading questioning and badgering of children in which
interviewers, consciously or unconsciously, prompted children to give
the answers the interviewer was looking for. However,
"confirmatory bias," while less obvious today, continues to dominate
prosecution-oriented interviews by police and social services agencies.
Today, the interviewer is less likely to confront or bribe the child to
give the desired answers; instead interviewers talk over the child or
change the subject when the child begins to give answers not favorable
to the interviewer's objective. Interviewers may ignore
contradictory responses that don’t fit their view of the case. In
this process, interviewers may see their mission as confirming or
validating the key allegations needed to prosecute the case.
Information that contradicts the allegations is ignored or discarded.
The process begins to go wrong
when forensic examiners are in contact with investigating detectives, or
other officers, agency workers, and/or family members with definite
agendas. Police and social services agencies ignore the fact these
contacts tend to contaminate, or “taint,” the interviewer's attitude
toward of the case. Close personal working alliances tend to
confound the process and taint the information obtained. To date,
however, research on the impact of this problem is lacking.3
PURPOSE AND METHODOLOGY
This article reviews professionally accepted
literature on forensic interviews of children within child psychological
and child psychiatric professions, and contrasts them to observations of
the methods presently used by many law enforcement and social services
agencies in the United States as seen in videotaped documentation of the
interviewing from those agencies.
From what I can observe from
the videos provided to me, most agencies that conduct forensic
Interviews tend to “over interview” children. Mental health
professions now recommend interviewing children a minimal number of
times. Most experts suggest no more than three interviews; a small
number accept a maximum of six. The consensus is that more than
three interviews of a child who was allegedly victimized, including
informal interviews by a parent, risk modifying the child’s statements,
thus making them unreliable.4
It takes great effort to compensate for problems
associated with multiple interviews of children. However, they can
be ameliorated by limiting the number of interviews to three. Law
enforcement contact with the child should be confined to one
well-trained specialist. Parents should be cautioned against
satisfying their curiosity by repeatedly questioning the child.
The problems of the police-child contacts go
beyond the number of interviews; a police station isn’t an appropriate
place to interview a child. The setting can be intimidating and
send misleading signals to the child, especially if the officer is in
uniform, or wearing a badge, and carrying handcuffs and a gun.
These factors are problematic and should be avoided. Ideally,
there should be as few distractions as possible.
Some interviewers have video cameras in the room.
They seem to believe that they should tell the child they’re “making a
movie,” which is a very bad idea. This introduces an element of
play acting to the interview. Does the child say what really
happened, or has the child adopted make-believe, as if it’s a movie?
Children don’t have an intrinsic need to know why the session is being
taped. Young children lack the skills to make that kind of
cognitive distinction between reality and play. By the same token,
it’s important not to clutter up, and further contaminate, the interview
by concluding that it’s necessary to do this so that “child testimony
can be avoided.” That’s not why we're here today! Most
experts agree that ideally children should not be made aware that a
video is being made.
We tend to see what we expect to see. This
is especially true of forensic interviews when the interviewer has a
collegial relationship with other members of the agencies who have had
contact with the child, as well as family members. A work dynamic
forms in a police or social services agency in which other individuals
involved in the process feel compelled to "fill in" the interviewer on
the “background” of the case. This only serves to enhance
confirmatory bias. A clear agency or inter-agency policy against
this should be posted for all forensic interviewers to see. The
forensic interviewer should have only basic information as to what is
alleged and some demographic information on the child. The person
conducting the forensic interview should be as unbiased and
uncontaminated as possible.
Nothing contaminates a forensic interview of a
child as much as a bias that prompts someone to become a “validator” on
a mission to extract information necessary to successfully prosecute the
accused. They ignore or reject all information that doesn’t fit in
with their preconception of the case and focus the interview toward
getting information to support charges against the accused. They
ignore children’s exculpatory statements because their sole mission is
confirm the allegations, not to elicit the child’s own statements.
A common and severe problem for forensic
interviewers is the danger of becoming jaded. Interviewers who
become involved in these cases will, over time, build a set of
prejudices based on their experiences. This causes them to project
their past experiences into the contemporary interview. As
well-intentioned as the individual interviewers may be, by filtering how
they conduct a forensic interview based on their extensive past
experience, they are likely to contaminate the present interview by
While total objectivity is impossible, we need to
find some mechanism to identify this condition before it becomes
irredeemable. New testing techniques are needed to determine the
level of the contamination of interviewers’ objectivity, and some manner
to tell us if and when they can be rehabilitated to resume the work.
When interviewers detect in themselves that they are "anticipating" the
child's responses, and arrive at a point of, "I know what you mean" in
their own minds (because they have done this so many times before) the
risk of contamination eventually becomes inescapable. The problem
is that you can arrive at a point where you are seeing things that
aren’t really there.
FLAWED ENVIRONMENT (LAW ENFORCEMENT)
The process within most agencies is problematic
because the premise they start out with doesn’t help find out the truth.
It’s aimed at securing a conviction, whether justified or not. The
process is designed as a tool for prosecuting the accused, not for
finding the truth. It is outcome oriented, a process in which
truth becomes secondary to getting information to support the
In most communities, law enforcement forensic
interviews are done in police stations. The interviewers are
typically police officers, either in uniform or plain clothes but
generally visibly equipped with the usual police paraphernalia — badge,
guns, handcuffs, police radio and the like. This is likely to
further contaminate the interview. Children are eager to please
adults of "high status" and nothing is as impressive to a small child as
being alone with a police officer. Sometimes social services
workers can be equally intimidating.
Most agencies reason: “It’s not our job to do the
work of the defense.” So if exculpatory information comes up in an
interrogation, the interviewer will ignore it and get away from it as
quickly as possible. If the child starts to make exculpatory
statements, the interviewer then talks over the child and reverts back
to a point where the child gave “helpful" responses.
When we examine police
interviews today, we commonly see the total absence of any effort to
ascertain whether the child might have been coached by someone prior to
the interview, or the extent to which such contacts may render the
child’s statements unreliable. There are a number of ways to
detect and overcome such external influences. Dr. William
O’Donahue from the University of Nevada at Reno outlined these
techniques in a training program he developed under a grant from the
United States Department of Human Services.5
But forensic interviewers all too often ignore these problems because
they lack the training and skills to use them. And they go against
the mission they have undertaken.
One suggestion is to ask the child if there is
anything important that they need to tell. In many cases a child
who has been coached will blurt out details they were told, because
which they don’t want to forget what they were told. Sometimes the
coaching is well intentioned, sometimes it isn’t. The forensic
interviewer should separate one from the other.
The interviewer should pay close attention to
things the child may say, such as comments about what is going to happen
to the accused. "Will he be arrested?" "Will he go to jail?"
The interviewer should explore these areas to determine how much
influence has been exerted on the child. The goal is to ascertain
how much information might have been transferred to the child.
Children may also give clues by saying, "(naming a person) said that
...” This should be, but often isn't, a red flag that should be
A good forensic interviewer needs to begin with
this information in order to have quality control over what is to come
later — the meat of the allegations. A good forensic interview
should have a solid foundation; the job should be seen not as only to
get statements to aid the prosecution, but to get statements that are
accurate. Forensic interviewers need be aware of any external
influences on the child, such as a divorce, child custody proceedings,
or an overly involved grandparent or other family member.
I have reviewed several hundred videos of forensic
child interviews in the past 30 years of my profession. Most of
the time the problems begin with an agenda to use the video in lieu of
the child's testimony. It is hard to cross-examine a DVD.
The belief is that the video makes cross-examination impossible.
However, a skilled defense attorney can demonstrate to the court the
need to cross-examine the child. Thus, an improper interview can
be used against the child. It can subject the child to rigorous
cross-examination to exploit vulnerabilities found in the interview.
The result in many jurisdictions has been "Taint Hearings" to rule the
child's testimony inadmissible because the forensic interviewer ignored
critical information during the interview. (See State of New
Jersey v. Margaret Kelly Michaels 642 A.2d 1372 and its copious
In a recent example, a Midwestern city police
detective who does the forensic interviews was dealing with a case in
which a specific charge was indecent exposure. The child gave
contradictory statements about the events as to whether the alleged
perpetrator knew she was in the room or not. The interviewer
ignored the child's description of the man's penis being flaccid.
The arrest documents, however, claimed he had an erection. In that
state an essential element of the crime is that the exposure was
deliberate, the purpose being for his sexual gratification or to induce
a sexual interest in the child. Not only did the interviewer
ignore the child's statement and talk over it and change the subject,
she missed completely the child's flat affect. There were many
clues that screamed for further follow-up. But these were ignored,
most likely because the interviewer knew it was a black hole. It
was a situation that in all probability would have made the child's
statements unreliable and sunk the case.
Ideally, the forensic interviewer is neutral.
This is sometimes virtually impossible, as people who work in the field
of child protection often become jaded and bring their expectations into
the room with them as they conduct the interviews. It is a form of
wish fulfillment or a self-fulfilling prophecy. They find what
they expect or want to find. They lose professional detachment and
assume an advocacy role. The only way to guard against this is to
rotate people in the job frequently, and not assign them to do field
investigations of child abuse if there is any hope to bring them back
after a break.
It is also a matter of economics. Most departments don't feel they
have the budgets to do things right. Actually, in the final
analysis, lack of adequate training and facilities will be an increasing
burden on budgets.
To this day, many law enforcement and social services don't provide
child-friendly settings. This can intimidate children and cause
them to focus on the police aspect of the setting. When children
start talking about police work they demonstrate they have gotten the
wrong message. This should be a red flag to the forensic
interviewer. The child-friendly atmosphere should be in another
building without the drama of a police station or social services
agency. The wrong environment can contaminate the interview.
The message the child gets is of being a crime victim, which can affect
what the child says and may even come to believe.
While a police station or social services facility
has bad connotations for the reliability of a child's interview, so does
the opposite extreme employed by social workers when they create a
fantasy playhouse environment. Yes, the child loves the staggering
array of toys but it establishes an atmosphere beyond the cognitive
capacity of young children and sends the wrong message. This isn't
"play time" or "pretend." The environment should be neutral, even
bland. An ideal is something familiar to a child, something
non-threatening that doesn't send the child messages of any kind.
A good environment might be a room resembling a living room or
kitchenette; something that is neutral and comfortable and less
challenging for the child.
An additional problem comes
with the questionable practice of using the anatomically-detailed dolls.
Many agencies continue using the dolls, but controversy persists that
they also add an element of contamination.6
The main issue, however, is the training of the
forensic interviewers who work with the children. It is important
they have interviewing skills and recognize their own biases. They
must zealously guard against being contaminated with too much biased
external information, such as through fellow police officers or case
workers who want to help by giving them information they feel is
important. This "team" concept is flawed when it comes to the
child interview. The interviewer needs to know minimum facts as to
what is alleged and minor demographics on the child. Too much
additional information may result in confirmatory bias unless the
interviewer is aware of this danger and consciously explores all
possible hypotheses. But few real world interviewers do this.
Perfect neutrality is probably the impossible dream, but perfect bias is
the perfect nightmare.
The entire environment of the forensic interview
is important. It needs clear definition and clear strategies.
This should start with the appearance of forensic interviewers
themselves. We should pay attention to this detail so that the
appearance of the interviewer is non-threatening to the child. It
can be things uncomfortable for us to address, such as the interviewer
being too tall or too large. The way the interviewer is dressed is
important. The facility is important as was previously noted.
It needs to be as free from distractions as possible. This
includes visual distractions and auditory distractions. Most
safeguards should go without saying, but like all warning labels, they
come because some people will make them necessary, even professionals.
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|* Kenneth R.
Palm Harbor, FL