Guidelines on Investigatory Interviewing
of Children: What is the Consensus in the Scientific Community?
American Journal of Forensic
Psychology, 24(3), 57-74 (2006)
Research over the last several years dramatically demonstrates how
child witnesses are susceptible to misleading information given to them in
leading and suggestive interviews. As a result of this research,
professionals now agree on the basic ways children must be interviewed in
order to get accurate, uncontaminated, forensically useful information.
Interviewers must avoid preexisting preconceptions about what happened and
encourage children to tell about relevant events in their own words and
interviews should be taped. But despite this consensus, field
interviewers often fail to use proper techniques. Instead, they
readily slip into interviewing behaviors that risk compromising the
reliability of the information obtained.
Researchers began studying children as witnesses along with their
susceptibility to misleading information following several highly
publicized sexual abuse cases in the 1980s. There have now been
hundreds of such studies. The general conclusion from this research
is that although children are capable of providing accurate, reliable, and
forensically useful information, they are vulnerable to suggestion.
Leading, suggestive, or coercive questioning can not only result in a
child making inaccurate statements, it can cause the child to develop a
subjectively real memory for an event that never happened. (1,
2, 3). It isn't only preschool children who are suggestible
— older children (as well as adults) are also vulnerable to the
suggestive techniques used in the studies with preschool children (4).
But with proper interviewing techniques, suggestibility can be avoided and
even young children can provide accurate information.
Forensic psychologists consider suggestibility of child witnesses to be
reliable and valid enough to be testified about in court (5).
Evidence concerning the way children should be interviewed in forensic
situations is also now sufficiently evolved so that recommended techniques
can be used in interviewing children in custody evaluations (6). A
2004 article by Bruck and Ceci (4) briefly summarizes the research in this
Professionals have now developed guidelines on how to conduct
investigations and interviews in order to get accurate and reliable
information (2, 3, 7-28). These recommendations are based on the
scientific research that demonstrates how faulty interview techniques can
produce false and inaccurate accounts. These guidelines show a
strong consensus as to how interviews and investigations should be
I tabulated recommendations for 24 articles and books; these are
summarized in Table I. When two articles described recommendations
of one group (e.g., the National Institute of Child Health and Human
Development [NICDH] interview protocol) I only counted it once. The
column titled "eight selected articles" in Table I refers to guidelines
for various professional groups along with the protocol for the widely
used Stepwise Interview; the other articles are by professionals writing
about conducting competent forensic interviews of children.
Summary of 24 Articles that Discuss
||Avoid bias; explore alternative
hypotheses or explanations
||Interview child alone unless child
too young to separate from parent
||Rapport building phase at beginning
||Open questions as much as possible,
encourage free narrative
||If later specific questions must be used,
pair each with an open question
||Avoid pressure, coercion, suggestion,
through giving child information,
leading questions, repeated questions
||Avoid play, fantasy, imagining
||Avoid reinforcing specific responses
|Memorandum of Good Practice from the United Kingdom
NICDH Investigative Interview Protocol
AACAP Practice Parameters
Yuille's Stepwise Interview
National Institute of Justice recommendations
APSAC Practice Guidelines
National Children Advocacy Center's forensic evaluation model
Center for Child Protection (San Diego) forensic interview protocol
Adequacy of forensic interviews must be examined in light of all the
times the child has been questioned about the alleged abuse from the
moment of the initial disclosure. This includes casual conversations
with parents and other relatives as well as formal interviews by police,
social workers, and therapists. This is critical to the case
evaluation since informal questioning can affect the responses of children
in later, formal interviews. Even nonsuggestive, open-ended
questions don't guarantee accuracy when child witnesses have been exposed
to prior misinformation (29). If the child has been given
misinformation in earlier formal and informal interviews, it may later
become impossible to obtain an uncontaminated account. This must be
considered in terms of later interviews since the child's memory for the
original event may have been altered.
GENERALLY ACCEPTED GUIDELINES
1. Avoid bias; explore alternative hypotheses or explanations
The most important thing for a child interviewer to do to obtain a
reliable statement from the child is to have no preconceived belief as to
what happened. The approach should be one of hypothesis-testing.
Unfortunately, many interviewers try to get the child to say things which
confirm what they already think happened. The importance of avoiding
bias and taking a hypothesis-testing approach is basic and is specifically
addressed by most of the articles that discuss interviewing guidelines.
For example, Ceci and Bruck (2) note that "Interviewer bias influences the
entire architecture of interviews and is revealed through a number of
different component features that are highly suggestive" (p. 80). If
the interviewer has a preconceived belief about what happened, he or she
is likely to ask questions and get answers that confirm this belief.
A number of classic studies in social psychology demonstrate the powerful
effect of preconceived beliefs on information an interviewer or
experimenter gets (30, 31,
32). Several recent studies show the
effects of interviewer bias on the accuracy of statements made by children
in interviews (2, 33,
34) as well as in other situations
To avoid biasing the interview, the interviewer must explore
alternative hypotheses. One is that the abuse occurred as alleged.
But there are other possibilities. In general, alternative
hypotheses often include the following (these are not exhaustive, but are
offered as examples):
|The allegations are basically valid, but the child has
substituted a different person for the perpetrator.|
|Some of the allegations are valid, but the child has
invented or been influenced to make additional allegations that are
|The child misperceived innocuous or inappropriate but
non-abusive behaviors as sexual abuse.|
|The child has been influenced or pressured to make a
completely false allegation to serve the needs of someone else.|
|The child has made a false allegation for personal
motives of revenge, gain, to show off to a peer, or to help someone else.|
|The child has fantasized the allegations, possibly
because of psychological problems.|
|The child initially made up the allegations but has
talked to several people about them and they have now become real to the
|The child saw pornographic magazines and pictures, saw
a pornographic movie, or observed adults engaged in sexual activities,
and this contributed to the allegations she later made.|
|The child engaged in sex play with peers or siblings,
and then accused an adult.|
|The child was questioned repeatedly by adults who
believed the child had been abused, and the child began making statements
to please the adult, who then reinforced the child with attention or
2. Videotape (or at least audiotape) all investigatory
There is a strong consensus that forensic interviews of child witnesses
should be videotaped, or at least audiotaped. Only electronic
recording can ensure an accurate record of the interview. Without a
tape, there is no way to know just what was said by the interviewer to
elicit a response from the child. There is no way to know just what
the child said. There is no way to determine whether the child's
statements are the result of a leading, coercive, and contaminating
interview rather than the child's account from his or her own memory and
personal knowledge. There are no good reasons for not taping an
investigatory interview of a child witness and many compelling reasons for
doing so (36-41).
Even experienced interviewers are unable to accurately recall their
specific, verbatim questions and the child's answers that are necessary
for evaluating an interview (42). This includes times when they take
verbatim notes during the interview (38). Reports based upon the
recollections of interviewers are likely to be inaccurate and
underestimate the degree to which they used closed and leading questions
as opposed to open-ended prompts. When there are no tapes of an
interview, there is no way to know the extent to which a child's
statements are in response to leading and suggestive questioning. If
it is impossible to videotape the interview (for example. a police officer
must take a statement at the child's house), it can be easily audiotaped.
3. Interview the child alone
The child should be interviewed alone unless he or she is too young to
separate from the parent. A parent or other supportive adult sitting
in on the interview can either intentionally or inadvertently cue the
child and contaminate the interview. The only exception to this is
when a very young child refuses to separate from a parent. But this
is not desirable and in such cases the parent should be cautioned not to
participate in the interview or cue the child in any way. Also,
following the rapport phase of the interview, if the child seems
comfortable, the interviewer can ask the child if the parent can leave and
There should also be only one interviewer. To the extent that the
child perceives pressure to say what she thinks the interviewer expects to
hear, more than one interviewer will increase this perceived pressure.
Also, children are more likely to go along with what they believe an
interviewer expects if the interviewer is identified as an authority
figure (2). I have seen tapes of interviews with as many as four or
five adults present in the interview, including police officers in uniform
wearing guns. If it is considered necessary for a team to be jointly
involved in the interview (such as a social worker from child protective
services and a police officer), the team can discuss in advance what
topics need to be addressed and then only one person interview the child.
The other person can observe the interview through a one-way glass mirror
and there can be an opportunity to consult before the interview is over.
4. Have a rapport building phase at the beginning
There should be a rapport building phase at the beginning of the
interview. One purpose of this part of the interview is to talk
about neutral topics and help the child become more comfortable. But
it is also to encourage and teach the child to give information to the
interviewer. The interviewer should avoid asking a series of closed
and forced choice questions during this phase of the interview.
Such questions tell the child that this is like school where there are
right and wrong answers and the teacher knows the right answer and is
testing the child to see if the child also knows. Adults routinely
test children by asking them questions to which the adult already knows
the answer and children are not accustomed to being questioned by
authoritative adults when only they have the information and the adult
But in investigative interviews, the child is the source of novel
information. Therefore the interviewer must let the child know from
the beginning that only he or she has the answers. The interviewer
must explain the child's role, motivate the child to give detailed and
complete accounts of events they have experienced, emphasize the
importance of telling only about true events that actually happened, and
encourage the child to correct inaccurate statements made by the
interviewers (43). This is best accomplished by beginning the
interview with open questions where the interviewer clearly does not have
5. Have a practice interview
During the rapport phase there should be one or more practice
interviews where the child is asked open questions about neutral topics,
such their last birthday party or the first day of school, and encouraged
to give detailed narrative answers. These practice interviews allow
the interviewer to gauge the child's memory and ability to describe past
events. They also allow the child to practice giving information in
response to open, nonleading questions. Research indicates that
interviewers get better information from children when they begin with
such practice interviews (43). Children who have the opportunity to
practice giving lengthy narrative responses to open-ended questions in the
rapport phase continue this behavior in the substantive part of the
6. Provide ground rules
Young children have a tendency to try to answer any question an adult
asks and may provide answers to unanswerable questions such as "Is milk
bigger than water?" or "Is red heavier than yellow?" (44).
Therefore, child interviews should begin with ground rules that include
telling the child the interviewer doesn't know the answers and that it is
all right for the child to say "I don't know" or "I don't remember," and
that the child should correct the interviewer if she says something wrong.
It helps if the interviewer practices the ground rules by asking an
unanswerable question (e.g., "What is the name of my cat?") and praising
the child when he or she says, "I don't know." The interviewer can
also deliberately get information wrong (e.g., "You said you have a
younger sister and an older brother" when the child has two brothers) and
then reinforce the child for correcting the interviewer.
Examples of ground rules include:
|I wasn't there and I don't know what happened.
Please tell me everything you can remember.|
|It's all right to say "I don't know" if you don't know
the answer: Please don't guess.|
|If you cannot remember everything, that's okay.
It's all right to say "I don't remember."|
|If I misunderstand something you say, please tell me.
I want to understand everything you say.|
|If I get something wrong, please correct me.|
|It's important to only talk: about things that really
happened. We don't talk about make believe or pretend.|
|If you don't understand something I say, please tell
me and I will try to say it using different words.|
7. Ask open questions and encourage a free narrative from the
The most reliable and forensically useful information from children is
obtained by encouraging the child to give a free narrative of the alleged
events and by asking a series of open, nonleading questions (e.g., who?,
what?, when?) or asking the child to "tell me everything you remember
about ..." The research evidence is clear: freely recalled
information is more likely to be accurate than information obtained in
response to yes/no and forced choice questions. Consequently, all of
the articles discussing guidelines for child forensic interviews make this
recommendation. Even children as young as four can provide
substantial amounts of forensically relevant information in response to
free-recall prompts (45). This means that interviewers do not have
to rely on forced choice and yes/no questions even with preschoolers.
The substantive portion of the interview should be also introduced in
as open a way as possible. The NICDH investigative interview
protocol gives detailed examples of how to progressively phrase such
beginning questions (16) and how to continue the interview using
open-ended prompts. Some examples of how to use open-ended probes to
introduce the topic of the interview include:
|Do you know why you came here to talk to me today?|
|Now that I know you a little better, I want to talk
about why you are here today. Tell me why you came to talk to me.|
|I understand some things have been happening in your
family. Tell me about them.|
Whenever the child gives response that is on track, the interviewer
should encourage a narrative response by asking, "Tell me everything you
can remember about that." When the child pauses, the interviewer
should follow up with additional open-ended prompts such as, "And then
what happened?," "Tell me more about that." Such open questions
should constitute as much of the questioning as possible.
Interviewers can ask the child to repeat something that wasn't clear or
encourage the child to continue the narrative by repeating a phrase, but
they should never interrupt the child to redirect the interview or to ask
specific questions. Only when it is clear that the child is not
going to provide additional information in response to the open-ended
prompts should the interviewer turn to specific questions.
8. Pair specific questions with opened-ended prompts
After obtaining as much information as possible with open questions,
interviewers may need to ask specific questions to address important areas
that have not been mentioned by the child. When this is necessary,
it should be later in the interview; such questions should not be asked at
the beginning. But it is a common error for interviewers to ask
specific questions rather than encouraging narrative responses (23,
47). When a more specific question must later be asked, it should be
paired with an open question. For example, if the child is asked if
his clothes were on or off and says, "Off," the interviewer could then
say, "Tell me everything about how they got off" If the interviewer
asks if anything happened in the bedroom and the child says, "Yes" the
interviewer can then say, "Tell me everything that happened there."
The risk of getting inaccurate information from such closed questions can
be minimized if they are paired with an open-ended prompt.
9. Avoid pressure, coercion, suggestion through giving the
child information, asking leading questions, and repeating questions
Although open-ended questions can be repeated without contaminating the
child's statements, interviewers should avoid repeating specific, closed,
and yes-no questions. When children are asked the same question
repeatedly, they can change their answers to conform to what they think
the interviewer wants to hear (2, 3,
Interviewers should never ask suggestive questions which provide
information about allegations. The general principle is that the
interviewer shouldn't ask a question about something unless the child has
already brought it up. Obviously, pressure and coercion should never
be used. All the guidelines warn against this. But in
practice, many interviews are leading and suggestive (see 2 and
transcripts of suggestive interviews). Even with the attention paid
to the importance of avoiding contaminating interviewing techniques, this
remains a problem (23). I regularly review videotapes that include
closed, forced choice, and leading and suggestive questions with few
10. Avoid play, fantasy, and imagining
The interviewer should avoid using such terms as "pretend" or "imagine"
or engage in imaginative play as part of the interview. False
disclosures of abuse can sometimes occur in response to techniques
involving fantasy, imagery, visualization and reenactment during play
(24). Guided imagery techniques can be particularly suggestive and
can lead to the child confusing an imagined event for something that
really happened. Techniques such as having puppets talk to each
other, as were used in the McMartin preschool case, should be avoided.
11. Avoid reinforcing specific responses
Social reinforcement can have a powerful effect on behavior and
interviewers should never selectively reinforce specific responses.
Research shows that such reinforcement during interviews can readily
elicit false allegations of wrongdoing from children (50,
51). Wood and Garven (25) note that several types of interviewer behavior are forms of
selective reinforcement or punishment that can contaminate interviews,
|Praising the child for making allegations|
|Implying that the child is being helpful or showing
intelligence by making allegations|
|Criticizing the child's statements by suggesting they
are wrong or inadequate|
|Giving tangible rewards such as food following
|Limiting the child's mobility (e.g., letting the child
go to the bathroom or terminating the interview) until the child has
talked about the topic of interest to the interviewer|
Although it is important to create a warm and supportive environment,
all such selective reinforcement of the child's responses must be
There is no research supporting the use of anatomical drawings where
body parts are named, and these are not generally recommended as part of
an interview protocol. There is an indication that such drawings may
decrease the reliability of the information obtained (52). When used
at the beginning of the interview, the anatomical drawings may communicate
to the child that what is to be discussed is body parts and touching.
They may confuse very young children who don't understand that a drawing
of a naked body has an abstract relationship to an actual person (53).
The drawings should not be necessary with older children. I recently
reviewed a taped interview in which the interviewer showed anatomical
drawings to a 13-year-old girl of normal intelligence and then asked if
she were a girl or a boy. Since interviewers should encourage a
child to perform at as a mature and effective level as possible, beginning
the interview by asking a teenager such a question detracts from the
serious purpose of the interview.
There are similar criticisms about discussions of good touch / bad
touch. Guidelines on how to conduct forensic interviews of children
do not mention beginning the interview with good touch - bad touch
discussions. Wood, McClure, and Birch (26) observe that agencies
continue to use the good touch / bad touch discussion for no particular
reason other than they had been doing it for years. I continue to
see good touch / bad touch discussions in tapes I review. I am
unaware of any research supporting this procedure. What it risks is
telling the child from the beginning that the purpose of the interview is
to talk about genital touching.
Most guidelines do not recommend using anatomical dolls. The few
that do caution how they are to be used (e.g., 7,
9, 10, 27,
Yuille, et al., (28) note that they should be used only as a last resort
and Carnes et al. (9) state that they should be used with "caution" and
"only when absolutely needed." But there are often problems with the
way the dolls are used by practitioners in the field (54). In
addition, very young children cannot use dolls as symbols or
representations for themselves, and make more errors when using the dolls
(55). Wolfner, Faust, and Dawes (56) critique the dolls and their
failure to add incremental validity to the interview. Many
professionals oppose their use. The conclusion, therefore, is that
the dolls are controversial and not generally accepted in the scientific
community (57, 58). There is no evidence that they add to the
completeness and accuracy of the information obtained and they are
susceptible to increasing the suggestiveness of the interview.
INTERVIEWS IN THE FIELD
There is now a clear consensus in the professional community as to how
children should be interviewed. But this hasn't always translated to
workers in the field. For example, estimates of the frequency of the
use of leading questions that introduce information to children vary from
13% to 60% with the majority in the 40% to 50% range (59).
In 1990 Underwager and Wakefield (49) reported on an analysis of 36
actual cases involving 150 interviews and 62 interviewers. The
interviewers didn't encourage free recall; instead they relied on closed
questions, pressure, and suggestion and they appeared to be trying to
substantiate abuse they had already concluded was real.
In 1996 Warren et al. (23) looked at 42 transcripts of sexual abuse
interviews conducted by child protective services personnel and found that
the interviewers failed to follow practices recommended by researchers on
children's testimony. The interviewers rarely conducted practice
interviews, seldom provided ground rules, and failed to begin with
open-ended questions, instead relying on specific, yes-no questions
throughout. They frequently introduced new material not previously
disclosed by the children. That same year Lamb et al. (60) reported
on their examination of 22 audiotaped interviews from 12 field
interviewers in Israel. Most questions were directive rather than
open-ended, and many were leading.
In 2004 Gilstrap (59) examined 80 interviews conducted by 41 field
interviewers with 40 children ages 3 to 7 about staged events. She
compared the behavior of these real world interviewers to the types of
questions studied in research settings. She found that the field
interviewers asked a substantial amount of leading questions (42%) and
that approximately one-third of the leading questions introduced
inaccurate information. The field interviewers repeated questions
12% of the time and introduced novel information 18% of the time.
Saywitz and Geiselman (61) observe that interviewing guidelines
designed to maximize the completeness of children's reports are not always
based on the realities of work conditions on the front lines. A
problem for workers in the field is that although young children's
spontaneous descriptions of past events are accurate, their descriptions
are often too incomplete to be useful. Important legal decisions
cannot be made without more information. Although field workers can
gather additional information with more questions, their methods risk
undermining the accuracy of the children's statements. Saywitz and
Geiselman have therefore developed approaches specifically geared to field
workers to elicit more complete and consistent accounts from children.
These approaches, narrative elaboration, and cognitive interviewing, are
based on research in their laboratories and appear to be a promising way
for field interviewers to get more complete but accurate information from
young children. Researchers from the National Institute of Child
Health and Human Development have also reported on field studies of their
interview protocol (NICHD protocol) which demonstrate that with their
protocol even young children can provide a substantial amount of
forensically relevant and accurate information in response to free-recall
prompts (12, 16,
45, 46, 47).
Research over the last several years dramatically demonstrates the
importance of properly interviewing child witnesses. Interviewers with
preexisting biases who ask leading, suggestive, questions risk confirming
their beliefs and getting false information. There is now a clear
consensus in the scientific community about how children must be
interviewed in order to get accurate, uncontaminated, forensically useful
information. Unfortunately, field interviewers aren't using these
techniques. Instead, they readily slip into undesirable behaviors
that risk compromising the integrity of the interview and the reliability
of the information the child gives them.
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