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.


1. Conduct the interview as early as feasible after the first statement of possible abuse.
2. Insure that the evaluation is carried out by a well-trained individual who is experienced in child development and in evaluating children and families.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. Dress in comfortable casual clothes rather than in a law enforcement or medical uniform.
7. 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 interview.

The Interview

1. Videotape, or at least audiotape, all contacts with the child from introduction to farewell.
2. 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.
3. 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 ..."
4. 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 alleged abuse.
5. Be friendly rather than authoritarian with the child.
6. 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, over," etc.
7. 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."
8. 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.
9. 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.
10. 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 understand."
11. 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 before.
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. 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.
15. 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?"
16. 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?"
17. 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.
18. 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 information.
19. 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.
20. 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.
21. 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 about that?"
22. 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.
23. 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.
24. 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.
25. 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.
26. 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 the bathroom."
27. 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.
28. 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.
29. 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?"
30. Use a neutral tone with no urgency;
31. Avoid repeated accusations of alleged offenses against a particular person.
32. Be patient and non-judgmental throughout.
33. 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.
34. Avoid asking questions of a child that begin with "Why," as this is an open invitation for the child to fill in the gap.
35. 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.
36. 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.
37. 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?"
38. 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.
39. 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.
40. 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

1. 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 same incident?
2. 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 incident?
3. 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."
4. 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 numerous times.
5. Notice the susceptibility to suggestion.  Was the evaluator able to induce the child to change parts of the story or adopt ideas?
6. 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?
7. 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 embarrassment.


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (1988). Guidelines for the clinical evaluation of child and adolescent sexual abuse. Adopted by the Council of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, June 11, 1988.

American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect (1991). Guidelines for the evaluation of sexual abuse of children. Pediatrics, 87, 254-259.

American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (1990). Guidelines for psychological evaluation of suspected sexual abuse in young children. APSAC, 332 South Michigan Avenue, Suite 1600, Chicago, Illinois, 60604.

Annon, J. S. (1987). The four-year-old child as a competent witness. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 1, 17-21.

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Lamb, M. E., Hershkowitz I., Sternbert, K. J., Esplin, P. W., Hovav, M., Manor, T., & Yudilevitch, L. (in press). Effects of investigative utterance types on Israeli children's responses. International Journal of Behavioral Development.

Faller, K. C. (1992, Summer). Types of questions for children alleged to have been sexually abused. The APSAC Advisor.

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Saywitz, K J., Goodman, G. S., Nicholas, E., & Moan, S. F. (1991). Children's memories of a physical examination involving genital touch: Implications for reports of child sexual abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 59, 682-691.

Saywitz, K. J., Moan, S., & Lamphear, V. (1991, August). The effect of preparation of children's resistance to misleading questions. Paper presented at the 99th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco.

Tobey, A. E., & Goodman, G. 5. (1992). Children's eyewitness memory: Effects of participation and forensic context. Child Abuse & Neglect, 16, 779-796.

Underwager, R., & Wakefield H. (1991, May 2). More effective child interviewing procedures in sexual abuse allegations. Presented at the Seventh Annual Symposium in Forensic Psychology, Newport Beach, CA.

* Jack S. Annon is a clinical and forensic psychologist at 680 Ainapo Street, Honolulu, Hawaii, 96825.  [Back]


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