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

Invitations and directive questions may improve accuracy because these question types draw primarily on recall-based memory processes. That is, the questions encourage the child to actively search and retrieve information from their memory, without any cues. Option-posing and suggestive questions, on the other hand, can activate recognition-based memory processes. That is, the questions encourage the child to search for memories that match the informational cues provided by the interviewer. Hence, there is an increased risk that children agree with inaccurate information because it feels familiar or partially matches their experience. Option-posing and suggestive questions also elicit more response bias (Lamb et al., 2007), meaning that children may formulate their answers with the intention of pleasing the interviewer or meeting expectations. For instance, young children tend to agree with suggestive questions even when the statement is incorrect, or try to guess the answer to an option-posing question that they do not know the correct answer to (e.g., Bruck & Ceci, 1999).

An impressive number of field studies involving more than 40 000 alleged crime victims have been conducted on the NICHD protocol. Taken together, the literature strongly suggests that NICHD training programs can help improve interviewers’ skills to better adhere with best-practice guidelines (Lamb et al., 2008). Many studies have reported significant increases in the amount of recall-based questions used by police officers after training (e.g., Cyr & Lamb, 2009; Lamb et al., 2009; Cederborg, Alm, da Silva Nises, & Lamb, 2013). Although option-posing and suggestive questions still occur, there is often noticeable decreases in their frequency. This is certainly promising. However, one critique of this research is that many studies exclude post-training interviews that do not follow the guidelines in the NICHD protocol (Benia, Hauck-Filho, Dillenburg, & Stein, 2015). The underlying rationale behind this choice is to examine effects of training if the protocol has been properly implemented (Lamb et al., 2008). Nonetheless, trainees do not always follow the protocol. In some cases, individual differences between police officers may explain why trainees do not adhere to the best-practice guidelines taught during training (Lafontaine & Cyr, 2016). Contextual factors might also influence the applicability of the protocol. For example, a child might start to talk about the crime allegation before the interviewer has explained the ground rules and practiced the interview format, thus warranting the interviewer to divert from the order of the protocol (Lamb et al., 2008).

Stuffed animalProviding officers with feedback after field training may also impact the long-term effectiveness of the training. An early study by Lamb, Sternberg, Orbach, Esplin, and Mitchell (2002a) examined the role of supervision after NICHD training among eight American police officers, and found that monthly individual feedback sessions on field interviews were necessary to maintain the positive effects of training. The authors argued that trainees appeared to fall back into old habits if not supervised regularly. Cyr, Dion, McDuff and Trotier-Sylvain (2012) tested this hypothesis by either giving feedback or no feedback to Canadian police investigators who had previously undergone a weeklong intensive training course. The analysis showed that the interviewers who received feedback used more invitations in their questioning, compared to interviewers who received no feedback. Lamb et al. (2002b) also found that feedback, either from individual evaluations or group discussions, did improve interviewing skills compared to investigators who only received theoretical lectures on child development. Hence, being evaluated and receiving comments on their interviewing performance may be important to maximize the effectiveness of field training on the NICHD protocol.

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