Recommended Guidelines for Interviewing Children in Cases of Alleged Sexual Abuse
Jack S. Annon*
The basic premise for these guidelines is that even young children
may be able to provide reliable and accurate accounts of events that
they have experienced or witnessed, provided that the interview is done
appropriately, in a proper setting, and without manipulation by the
evaluator. These guidelines are based upon the clinical and
laboratory research cited in the references.
||Conduct the interview as early as feasible after the first
statement of possible abuse.
||Insure that the evaluation is carried out by a well-trained
individual who is experienced in child development and in
evaluating children and families.
||Avoid forming preconceived impressions of the incident.
A way to accomplish this is for the evaluator to be relatively
naive as to the circumstances of the abuse and to avoid learning
any information that the child does not know. Otherwise
the evaluator may not be open to information which does not fit
with information already obtained. Also, if the evaluator
has previous information, there is usually a strong pressure
placed on the child for specific responses and contradictory
information may not be pursued.
||Consider the demand characteristics of the interview
setting. Avoid extremes, such as a room full of toys that
gives the child the impression it is a play room for "make
believe," or a bare stark room with only adult
furniture. Sit at a table, at the same level as the child.
||If a one-way mirror is used, place it higher than the seated
child. A clear view can be obtained in this manner, or a
videotape can be made shooting down through such a small
window. Too often the one-way mirror is directly opposite
the child's face with the result that many children get
distracted and begin making faces at themselves in the mirror,
and do not pay attention to the interview.
||Dress in comfortable casual clothes rather than in a law
enforcement or medical uniform.
||If there are to be observers, or the interview is to be video-
or audiotaped, tell the child and ask the parent or legal
guardian to sign an informed consent form prior to the actual
||Videotape, or at least audiotape, all contacts with the child
from introduction to farewell.
||Interview the child alone. The only people in the room
should be the child and the evaluator, unless there is a
compelling need to do otherwise.
||Do not introduce yourself with a title such as
"detective," "officer," or
"doctor." Just state your name and something to
the effect that "I am a person who talks with children
||Establish rapport at the beginning. Here is where
general and non-leading questions may be asked about home,
school, friends, and games. This is an opportunity to use
open-ended questions so the child may become accustomed to such
questioning. This is also where a baseline of the child's
verbal and non-verbal behavior is noted during different areas
of questioning, for comparison later when talking about the
||Be friendly rather than authoritarian with the child.
||Assess the child's developmental level and the concepts that
the child has in various areas. Use materials such as
pencil and paper, color crayons, or blocks to find out how far
the child can count, how many colors the child knows, whether
the child understands concepts of "in, on, under, beside,
||Find out if the child understands the concept of the
difference between telling the truth and telling fibs or lies
and whether the child knows the difference between "make
believe" and "reality."
||Let the child know that the evaluator has no information
regarding the facts of the child's particular situation because
the evaluator was not there. Tell the child to trust his
or her own memory because the evaluator has no knowledge about
the events in question. Tell the child to say, "I
don't know" when the child doesn't know the answer, and
"I don't remember" when the child doesn't
remember. Make it clear that the child's task is to only
say what really happened and not to say what he or she thinks
the evaluator might want to hear.
||However, research indicates that just saying this may not be
very helpful unless the child actually has an opportunity to
practice it. So encourage children to admit they lack
memory or knowledge about a particular event, rather than trying
to guess. For example, the evaluator could ask, "Did
the doctor who delivered you wear glasses or not?" or
"What were the first words mommy said when she saw you
after you were born?" Encourage the child to respond
with "I don't know" or "I don't remember" to
questions such as these and practice these interactions.
||Let the child know that some of the questions may be confusing
and give examples such as, "How many pie needles are in a
ginbung?" or "Is a top a square or a
rectangle?" Give the child a chance to say he or she
is confused or doesn't understand. If the child does try
to answer, let the child know that the evaluator could not even
answer it, and it is okay to say, "I don't
||Let the child know that sometimes the evaluator may ask the
same question over again, and if this happens, it does not mean
that the first answer was wrong; it could mean that the
evaluator forgot that the question was asked before, or it could
mean that the evaluator did not quite understand what was said
||Give the child permission to correct the evaluator. This
also gives an opportunity to see how suggestible the child
is. For example, the evaluator could say, "Now you
told me that your brother was 4 years old" (when, in
reality; the child said the brother was 6 years old). See
if the child will let it go, or will correct the evaluator.
||Let the child know that some questions may be easy and others
may be difficult, and no one is expected to remember
everything. Encourage children to admit they are confused
rather than trying to guess, and reinforce them when they do
correct the interviewer, when they do say that they don't know,
or when they admit they are contused.
||Check out the child's concepts pertaining to knowledge and
function of body parts with outline drawings, which are commonly
used. Anatomical dolls are sometimes used, but there is a
consensus that dolls by themselves should never be used to make
a diagnosis of sexual abuse. They can at best be used only
as a comforter, ice breaker, or as an anatomical model, or later
as a demonstration aid.
||Focused questions can sometimes be used here. For
example, in regard to the body when the child gives the name for
the penis or vagina ask questions such as, "Who has one of
these?" "What is it for?" "Have
you ever seen one?" "What do men or women do
with them?" "Did you ever touch one?"
"Whose?" "What do you do with
yours?" "Did yours ever get hurt?"
"Anyone ever touched yours?" "Has anyone
done anything to yours?"
||Some general questions could also be around the concept of
games: "Do you play games with your mom, your dad, your
brother, your sister, your babysitter, etc.?"
"What kinds of games?" "Does your family
have any secrets?" "What kind of secrets?"
||Do not encourage make believe by saying things such as,
"Make believe that this puppet is your dad and that this
puppet is you" or "Now, let's pretend we are at home
and ... " Such instructions invite the child to
engage in make believe and pretend situations. When this
happens, children may use their imaginations and come up with
all sorts of statements that have no basis in reality. The
evaluator should carefully avoid using words such as "make
believe" or "pretend" and should avoid modeling
such behaviors in the interview.
||Do not turn the interview into a "play"
session. This can confuse the child. Also, children
may see this as an opportunity to interact as they would with
another child and to make things up. Although these types
of behaviors may be appropriate in play therapy with the child
who has been abused, in a forensic evaluation they are not
appropriate and may mislead the child into giving false
||Sometimes a memory aid such as a doll house might be
used. However, in this case let the child know that the
figures represent different real people, and it is his house to
help him reenact events. Paper and pencil drawings can do
the same thing. A child can draw the house and point out
where different places are and where different things happened.
||In focusing the child's attention in certain areas, as much as
possible avoid direct, leading, or suggestive questions or
statements since these reduce the length and quality of the
statements made by the child.
||Use invitational statements or questions in order to elicit a
more open-ended response from the child, such as, "And then
what happened?" or "Would you please tell me more
||Use verbal facilitators such as, "Okay, I see" and
restatement of the child's previous statement, as well as
non-suggestive words of encouragement, which again are designed
to keep the child talking in an open-ended way.
||Once the child starts to talk about a specific area pertaining
to possible abuse, allow the child to use free recall of
whatever events are remembered in whatever order the child
wishes. Encourage the child to provide a free narrative
account and do not interrupt the narrative with questions.
||Stress the importance of telling everything that is
remembered, even partial information, regardless of whether or
not the child believes it is important. Let the child tell
you as much as is recalled.
||Once the child has narrated an event, gather more information
by asking the child to start at the middle and go forward, or
backward in time.
||When necessary, open-ended questions can be repeated a number
of times. For example, when the child stops talking, ask,
"Now tell me more about what happened when you walked into
||Close-ended questions that can be answered "yes" or
"no" should not be repeated, otherwise the child may
feel that the previous answer was not accepted by the
evaluator. The child may therefore believe that the first
answer was not "right" and may change the answer.
||At this point it may be helpful to use elements from what is
called the cognitive interview to help the child mentally
reconstruct the environment and context that existed at the time
of the given event.
||Avoid coercion of any type, or any implication of bribes or
threats. Questions may be used to clarify, but it is
important not to lead the child or suggest answers to the
child. For example, avoid questions such as, "Did you
see the ... ?", or, "After he hit you what did you do
then?" (when the child never said that he was hit, but only
the mother had said that before the interview). If you
must use questions, use objective ones such as, "Did you
see a ... ?, or best, "What did you see?", or multiple
choice questions such as, "Was it red, white, yellow or
some other color?"
||Use a neutral tone with no urgency;
||Avoid repeated accusations of alleged offenses against a
||Be patient and non-judgmental throughout.
||Do not ignore contradictions in the child's testimony of what
was said earlier as compared to later. Follow up on
apparent contradictions as open-endedly as possible.
||Avoid asking questions of a child that begin with
"Why," as this is an open invitation for the child to
fill in the gap.
||Be concrete in the questions asked. For example, if a
young child is asked, "Did Leilani drive you away in her
car?" the child may answer negatively if the actual vehicle
used was a truck.
||Check out the level of suggestibility in the child. As
suggested by one researcher, the evaluator might ask, "Lots
of children in situations like this get aches and pains in their
legs and feet, how about you?" In this case see if
the child agrees, and if so, ask, "Where?" If
the child does not agree, this means she is more likely to be
resistant to that kind of suggestion.
||Throughout the interview, test for alternative
hypotheses. One researcher recommends statements such as,
"Sometimes kids make up a story and later believe that it
is true, but it is only a daydream, did that happen to
you?" Another question might be, "Some people
might think you made up the story to get out of the house, is
there a possibility of that?" or, "Some mothers might
have told you what to say, is that what happened in your
case?" or, "Sometimes parents do some really mean
things to their children, and the only way to get back at them
is to try to hurt them and say that they did something
else. Could that be the case here?"
||Respect the child's wishes concerning whether or not to
discuss a specific matter. Give the child permission to
decline answering because the answer may be too difficult to
discuss at the moment and let the child know that he or she does
not have to answer right now if he or she doesn't want to.
||If the child says she or he wants to stop the interview, do
so, and do not say, "We will stop as soon as you tell me
everything I want to know," or use other kinds of promises
or rewards. Accept the request without pushing, and let
the child know that you can meet again at another time and then
maybe talk more about some of the different things. It is
better to have two or three short videotaped open interviews
than to try to obtain as much information as possible from a
resistant or tired child all in one long interview.
||Thank the child for the time spent and for the way that he or
she has helped the evaluator to understand what has been
happening with the child. Unless otherwise called for, end
with a discussion of a neutral subject such as asking the child
what he or she is going to do after the interview, etc.
Evaluation of the Interview
||In evaluating the interview, look for external
consistency. Does the child give the same account to
different people, or are there serious inconsistencies in
details, or time sequences between different versions of the
||Look at internal consistency. Does the child's story
make sense? Do the time sequences, locations, descriptive
details, change over the time of the interview, when the child
is asked to go back and recount different aspects of the
||Look at internal details. Is there sufficient
detail? Sometimes children can give extremely accurate
descriptions for these details; other times they may not be able
to. Note if the child only makes a generalized accusation
such as, "He raped me" or "He abused me."
||Look at the child's affect. Is the affect congruent with
what the child is discussing? Do you see various emotions
of depression, embarrassment, or anger? Or do you see
inappropriate faint smiling, or overeager talk? Some
children are numb and flat because of exhaustion or denial, or
the flat affect could be the result of telling the story
||Notice the susceptibility to suggestion. Was the
evaluator able to induce the child to change parts of the story
or adopt ideas?
||Note any reactions to challenges that the evaluator may have
asked. If the evaluator asked the child if he or she made
up the story, what is the child's response? Does the child
get angry? Does the child deny it, or go along with what
the evaluator says?
||Understand reasons why children might not tell the
truth. Five areas have been researched: 1) children will
lie to avoid punishment; 2) children can be induced to tell a
lie in the context of a game; 3) children will lie to keep
promises (children even as young as 2 years of age will omit
important information about transgressions and accidents if
adults ask them to do so); 4) children may lie for personal gain
(in order to gain material rewards or gain acceptance in a
group); and, 5) children may lie in order to avoid
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|* Jack S.
Annon is a clinical and forensic psychologist at 680 Ainapo
Street, Honolulu, Hawaii, 96825. [Back]
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