Asking Children to Talk About Abuse: Can Research Help Improve Police Interviewer Skills?

Decades of laboratory and field research has demonstrated that children, even as young as three years of age, can provide accurate testimonies (e.g., Bruck & Ceci, 1999; Goodman & Melinder, 2007). But a wide range of factors influence children’s capability and willingness to report crimes to the police, and case studies of crimes that can be verified by other evidence (e.g., video-recordings) demonstrate that children often omit sensitive details or deny that the crime has taken place (e.g., Leander, 2010; Leander, Christianson, & Granhag, 2007; Sjöberg & Lindblad, 2002).  In sexual abuse cases, trauma reactions, loyalty towards the perpetrator, and internal feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame are just a few of the many barriers that could hinder a victim from sharing the details of their experience (e.g., Magnusson, Ernberg, & Landström, 2016). As the forensic child interview typically plays a central role during abuse investigations, a poorly conducted interview could have a direct negative effect on the legal outcome. This is particularly problematic in sexual abuse cases as corroborative physical evidence is often unavailable (Diesen & Diesen, 2009). Without a credible testimony, guilty perpetrators might be acquitted and children risk being sent back to an abusive environment (Ernberg, Tidefors & Landström, 2016). Additionally, other children may be targeted if the perpetrator reoffends. Conducting high quality interviews that adhere to current research on children’s witness capabilities is therefore a vital component for ensuring both children’s safety and a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

A heavy burden is consequently placed on the forensic child interviewer. They need to skilfully help victims talk at length about their experiences whilst avoiding the risk of eliciting false details. Simultaneously, they need to investigate if the report could be unfounded. Researchers and practitioners have therefore developed a number of evidence-based interviewing guidelines to help with this difficult task. In this article, we will take a closer look at one of the most commonly used research-based techniques for interviewing children; the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) protocol (Lamb, Orbach, Hershkowitz, Esplin, & Horowitz, 2007). Secondly, we discuss novel research programs and innovative tech-based solutions to improve the quality of forensic child interviewing. The future appears to hold a number of exciting new developments for the field.

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