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

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.

Does use of the NICHD protocol affect children's testimony?

So far this paper has focused on how training influences police officers’ behaviour. The following section will discuss how use of the NICHD protocol can affect the interview outcome in terms of the children’s testimony. The results of this research have varied. Cyr and Lamb (2009) found an overall increase in the number of details provided by children when officers followed the NICHD protocol, compared to children’s responses in interviews conducted before NICHD training. Most importantly, they reported an increase in the number of details of central value for the investigation, such as information about the perpetrator's identity and the type of abuse. Other studies have not found an overall increase in the amount of details, but have found that after NICHD training, when officers do elicit information from children, it is more often in response to invitations (e.g., “Tell me more about this”) rather than other types of questions (e.g., Lamb et al., 2009; Cyr et al., 2012). Given that responses to invitations (compared to recognition-based question types) tend to be more reliable and accurate, this is a promising finding. Some studies have also reported a decrease in the number of details that are provided when officers do use poor interview techniques, including option-posing and suggestive questions (e.g., Lamb et al., 2009; Lamb, Sternberg, Orbach, Hershkowitz, Horowitz, & Esplin, 2002b). This may be an effect of the pre-substantive phase of the NICHD protocol, where interviewers provide ground rules, such as encouraging children to avoid guessing and to check with the interviewer if they do not understand a question.

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