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

It appears that interviewing children using the NICHD protocol can improve certain aspects of children’s testimonies. However, it is difficult to assesses the actual accuracy of children’s responses using field research, since neither interviewers nor researchers have access to an objective account of the events being discussed in the interview. To fill this gap, some researchers have started to examine the NICHD technique in controlled laboratory settings. Brown, Lamb, Lewis, Pipe, Orbach, and Wolfman (2013), for example, studied effects of the NICHD interview practice phase as well as differences in children’s accuracy in response to different question types (i.e. invitations, directive, option-posing and suggestive questions) in an experiment with school-aged children. The children participated in a staged event where they had their photograph taken while wearing costumes. Some weeks later, they were interviewed by NICHD trained research assistants about this experience as well as about a fictitious visit to a fire station. The children were asked questions about the fire station visit to see if they would report false details (analogous to situations in which children might report false details of a crime). Overall, the children were highly accurate in their responses. Still, a small number of children (approximately 11%) provided false details about the non-existent fire station visit, demonstrating the risk of obtaining false testimonies when questioning children about events that have not occurred.

Taken together, existing research seems to provide evidence in favour of investing in NICHD training programs. Not only does training typically improve police interview skills to align with best-practice guidelines, it may elicit more and better information from children. To date, much of the research in this area has taken place in field settings, meaning that it typically does not provide the level of experimental control that would be possible in a laboratory setting. Controlled laboratory studies on police officers’ behaviour after training could contribute towards filling some of the gaps in existing research. Further studies also need to be carried out in order to compare the effectiveness of the NICHD protocol to other evidence-based interview protocols intended for use with child victims.

Future lines of inquiry

Revised versus standard NICHD protocol

Although often effective, the NICHD protocol is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution (Brown et al., 2013). In particular, eliciting details from children who are reluctant to talk can still be difficult (Hershkowitz, Orbach, Lamb, Sternberg & Horowitz, 2006). Hershkowitz and colleagues (2015) addressed this issue in a recent revision of the NICHD protocol. A larger focus was placed on building rapport between the child and interviewer. The revised NICHD protocol has an expanded pre-substantive stage, which includes an initial rapport building stage before the introduction of ground rules. For the substantive stage, the revised protocol emphasises the importance of acknowledging the child’s emotions (“I can see that you find this difficult to talk about”) and providing non-suggestive support throughout the interview (e.g., “Thank you for sharing this information with me”). You can read the revised protocol at

Initial studies on the revised protocol show promising results in terms of children’s responsiveness to questions compared to interviews with the standard protocol (Ahern, Hershkowitz, Lamb, Blasbalg, & Winstanley, 2014, Hershkowitz et al., 2015; Hershkowitz, Lamb, & Katz, 2014). Presumably, building rapport could help create the trust and support needed for reluctant victims to open up and disclose details about their abuse. Further laboratory studies are nonetheless needed to examine direct effects and underlying mechanisms of rapport building on disclosure tendencies in settings analogous to forensic child interviews (Saywitz, Larson, Hobbs, & Wells, 2015).

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