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

The NICHD protocol is a concrete step-by-step guide for interviews with child sexual abuse victims (you can download the protocol at It has been translated into eleven different languages and implemented by law enforcement agencies (at national or district levels) in fourteen different countries (e.g., Canada, the USA, Japan, Israel, Finland, and Sweden; see La Rooy et al., 2015). In brief, the protocol divides the forensic child interview into three phases; the pre-substantive phase, the substantive phase and the closure phase (e.g., Lamb et al., 1996). The pre-substantive phase begins with an introduction (e.g., “My name is… and I work with the police”) and an explanation of ground rules (e.g., that the child should not try to guess and that it is okay to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand”). The pre-substantive phrase continues with a rapport building and interview practice stage where the interviewer tries to familiarize the child with the interview format (e.g., by asking the child about fun recent events). The purpose is to provide the child with practice in responding to the current type of  questions, as the forensic child interview format differs from the way typical conversations are carried out. The interviewer thereafter transitions to the substantive phase of the interview by asking open-ended questions about the incident under investigation (e.g., “I understand that something has happened to you, tell me everything about that”) and encourages the child to elaborate (e.g., “Tell me more”). Specific questions (e.g., “Did he do something to you?”) should be postponed as long as possible and suggestive or leading questions (e.g., “Did he hit you?”) avoided completely. Prior to ending the interview, the interviewer is encouraged to ask questions about the child’s previous disclosure of the crime (e.g., “Have you talked to anyone else about this?”). This is followed by the closure phase, where the child is thanked for their cooperation and asked questions about a neutral topic for a few minutes (e.g., “What are you going to do this afternoon?”). The setup for training in the NICHD protocol varies between countries, but police officers typically undergo a five-day field training course in which officers participate in both active training workshops (e.g., role playing child interviews) and lectures on child development and investigative interviewing (Lamb et al., 2008).

Can NICHD training improve police interviewer skills?

Researchers have measured whether police officers’ interview skills improve after NICHD field training by examining the type of questions used in real forensic child interviews before and after training. Questions are typically classified into four different categories. For example, imagine that an interviewer wanted to acquire information about the colour of a toy dinosaur. He or she could use: (1) Invitations (e.g., “Tell me more about the dinosaur…”), (2) Directive questions (e.g., “What colour was the dinosaur?”) (3) Option-posing questions (e.g., “Was the dinosaur blue or pink?”) and (4) Suggestive questions (e.g., “The dinosaur was pink, wasn’t it?”) (see Lamb et al., 1996). Laboratory studies have demonstrated that invitations and directive questions are associated with more detailed and accurate responses from children (e.g., Bruck & Ceci, 1999) and are therefore seen as preferable to option-posing or suggestive questions.

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).

article author(s)