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Forensic Interviews of Alleged Child Sexual Abuse Victims Part II

Every day across this nation children, alleged to have been sexually and physically abused, are interviewed by individuals referred to as Forensic Interviewers.  This term is approximately five years old and hovers over the world of sex abuse allegations like a 747.  Interestingly enough, most Forensic Interviewers are impostors, clearly unqualified to conduct child interviews.

Why the worries then?  In cases of child sexual abuse, the child’s testimony is usually the only evidence.  Incompetent forensic Interviews imperil investigations.  Forensic Interviewers see themselves as children’s advocates .  Unfortunately, the training they receive is based upon the unsupported assumptions children don’t lie about sex abuse and can’t have the sexual knowledge to make such allegations.  This training bypasses the central mission of these interviews — ascertaining the truth.  In most jurisdictions training for the police has been nonexistent.  Just recently, the legislatures in the State of Washington passed laws mandating police to have a minimum of twenty hours training.  Ponder on this.  Someone’s freedom based upon twenty hours of training.  The classes are taught by local advocates and professors with one-sided views in line with those held by prosecutors.

Forensic Interviewers and Police are not exposed to views and research which disagree with the zealously held biased opinions of these advocates — views which might be presented by the defense.  There is no cross training.  If you would take the time and evaluate each jurisdiction that uses Forensic Interviewers, you would quickly find the jurisdictions are no different from Seattle to New York.

The model of child interviewing has come from organizations such as APSAC (American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children), ARI (Ayn Rand® Institute), and so forth.  These models are based on the hypothesis “Every child tells the truth about sex abuse.”

They don’t consider multiple hypotheses which would challenge tunnel vision created in the mind’s eye of the Forensic Interviewer from the moment the allegation is reported.  Recently, one of their own, Tom Plach, in his book, “Investigating Allegations of Child and Adolescent Sexual Abuse” states,

“Multiple hypotheses is the process that subsequently uses the evidence gathered during the investigative phase to rule in or rule out each explanation … the reliability of information gathered from victims can be influenced by many, many factors and so should never be taken at face value …  There are at least ten common alternative explanations that could be explored in sexual abuse investigations” (Plach T., 2008, pp. 47-49).

The notion is so self-evident it’s hard to believe anyone would have to put it in writing.

Most Detectives patronize alleged victims, and condemn alleged perpetrators before even listening to their side of the story.  Hazelwood and Warren “propose that fantasy is the link between the underlying motivation for sexual assaults and the behavior exhibited during the crime” (2008, p. ix).  Yes, there’s an obvious conflict between the investigator’s obligation to accept the alleged victim’s complaint as legitimate and his duty to develop the facts of the case.  However, there are guidelines designed to resolve such conflict and enable them to be objective professionals.

Some features in disclosures are consistent with false allegations.  These can include emotional response and absence of physical injury, inconsistent, extremely vague or unnecessarily detailed disclosure and such.  Hazelwood and Burgess also note in their book,

“Those who make false allegations may have legitimate problems worthy of attention in their own right.  Yet if their false allegations are accepted at face value, rather than as symptoms of psychological needs, the legitimate problems may go untreated and can result in future difficulties” (2008, p. 191).

Common in cases of false allegations for a proclaiming victim is the simple need for a neglected child desperate who to search for and obtain attention.  Children may also choose to create a fictitious crime to avoid personal responsibility for some act or failure.  Moreover, the interviewer must know that, as explained by Dr. Victoria Talwar, an assistant professor at Montreal’s McGill University and a leading expert on children’s lying behavior, “lying is related to intelligence” (Bronson P., 2008, p. 4). 

To conceive the truth and seek alternate reality, and be able to convince the other of new reality, demands certain cognitive development and social skills.  The more complex lie is to be expected from a smarter individual.  Children may lie indiscriminately —whenever punishment seems to be a possibility.

“Punishment is a primary catalyst for lying, but lying also becomes a way to increase a child’s power and sense of control.  Many kids begin lying to their peers as a coping mechanism” (Bronson P., 2008, p. 6).

Therefore, it is imperative investigators monitor the source of the complaints.  They must thoroughly trace back all the events that took place prior to the alleged abuse to determine if a child was under any pressure before the alleged disclosure, or whether any personal dilemmas might be related to the alleged incident, and who might have possibly have influenced that child.

In the outside world, A.C. Nielsen Co. reported the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day (or 28 hours a week, or 2 months of nonstop TV-watching per year).  TV is a neglected addiction that begins to develop from the time they are two years old.  Young children can’t weigh the pros and cons of information and are readily influenced.  Television, with ads directed to their age group, and innumerable portrayals of sex and mayhem, can drastically influence their attitudes.

The average child watches television 1,680 minutes, or four hours, a day.  Seventy percent of daycare centers use TV during a typical day, which might add another two or three hours of exposure.

The average American child spends some 1500 hours a year in front of a TV set.  The equivalent of 62 x 24-hour days.  Yet, the average American child spends only 900 hours a year in school.

They spend a significant portion of their TV lives exposed to sexually explicit scenes, detailed discussion of sex lives, contraceptive ads, discussions of erectile dysfunction, incontinence, hemorrhoids, menstrual products and contraceptives.  And all manner of violence; car chases, shootings, stabbings, fights, and Reality TV scenes of sex crimes.  By the time they’re 16, they’ve seen several thousand shootings, rapes, and depictions of mayhem.

Five-year-old children are able to watch Wife Swapping, American Housewife, World Wrestling Federation, and a variety of other shows explicitly dealing with sex.  Then, there’s the soft and hard porn available on HBO.

Graphic sex is available at the twist of a TV dial or press of a computer button.

It’s meaningless to say young children can’t know, and know a lot about, sex.  In addition to TV (especially HBO), they are exposed to it in salacious, routinely obscene, and often violent rap lyrics.  The internet contains images of every kind of sex imaginable.

To a significant extent, children are products of their environment.  When Forensic Interviewers interview an alleged victim they fail to explore the child’s environment.  The closest they get to this is to ask who lives with them.  They don’t ask about other adults in their lives, those who might come into the household, or what the child does and is exposed to in the home environment, or school.

 One has to bridge ignorance with common sense to find the reasonable and logical allegations.))  If the interviewers don’t invest time exploring the alleged victim’s culture (which includes age, cognitive level of development, heritage, family origin, family composition, home & school environments etc.), they can’t adequately adjust their questioning to elicit a legitimate statement that may be used as evidence.

What does it take to make these Forensic Interviewers “do the right thing” when interviewing children who may have been sexually or physically abused?  Where is the proper training of these Forensic Interviewers and Police?

To do it properly, the Forensic Interviewer must be trained to perform the interview in a Structured (Cognitive) Interview Protocol (Debra A. Poole and Michael E. Lamb, 1998, p. 87).  Here are the five steps:

1. The introduction (rapport building).
2. Open-ended narration.
3. The probing stage (exhausting contents of memory).
4. A review stage (providing additional opportunities to recall).
5. The closing.

The secret to conducting this interview with flawless transitions from one point to the other is to make sure the questions are reasonable and logical.  Probably the trickiest part of interviewing children is to remain objective and capture signals of their body language, along with the tone of voice, in order to comprehend the emotional trauma, if any is present, and the extent to which the child might be susceptible to exaggerate and/or even deceive.

Thus, the interviewer must not only be friendly, but function as a true professional who understands children, how they think, how they see the world at various stages in their development.  For example, I once had a five-year-old boy tell me he was in the closet or under the bed when his father would come to get him.  That disclosure, together with the child’s affect, doesn’t necessarily mean he was under the bed or in the closet.  Instead, it might suggest the boy was afraid of his father.  I have found, when a child demonstrates no affect, the child’s allegation can possibly hold some misinformation and untruths.  This doesn’t mean the child hasn’t been sexually abused; it does, however suggest there could be something wrong and troubling which needs to be explored.  Moreover, when the child states someone engaged in “bad touch” it’s particularly important to look into the details of their statement.  Is it seemingly made by rote, are they parroting someone else’s words?  Can they go beyond the simple declaration and discuss various aspects of the alleged event?

We, as humans, need to talk, especially during difficult times.  Particularly when one tries to touch someone inappropriately.  Further exploration is justified to understand why there was no dialogue between the alleged victim and suspect.  What is interesting is the artifact that the alleged suspect, somewhere during the non-talking, spurted out the child was not to tell anyone of what happened.  Although this may have occurred, it does not occur as much as people in the legal field assume.  The problem comes from multiple interviews where well-meaning advocates suggest to the child the alleged suspect, “Told them not to tell.”

The statement Forensic Interviewers recommend for children use is, “If you don’t remember or you don’t know,” you can just say that.  I find this to be provocative at best.  The sole job of the Forensic Interviewer is to find out what happened.  When guidelines such as these are given to young adults who might be lying they can say “I don’t remember” or “I don’t know” to get out of difficult questioning by a competent Forensic Interviewer.

There has been no scientific data on what telling a child they can say “I don’t know” will ultimately produce. Ultimately, the jury will weigh the child’s credibility.  Should a child who says “I don’t know” 72 times have any credibility with anyone?  The cost of freedom should require more stringent requirements when it comes to child interviewing. 

It’s difficult to get Prosecutors, Police Detectives and Forensic Interviewers to realize something is amiss when a child discloses only that “My grandfather touched me.”  One hundred forty-nine times in two interviews the child said, “I don’t know.”  Perhaps this will offer a brief demonstration:

FI:    Well, when the last thing happened to you, where did it happen?
AV:  I don’t know.
FI:    Was it the bathroom or the bedroom?
AV:  I don’t know.
FI:    You don’t remember?
AV:  No (Initials have been modified).

What will it take for these alleged child advocates to understand that the interviews are not about the Forensic Interviewer, Police Officer, or Child Advocate?  Instead, it is about taking the proper steps and using a protocol that considers and applies alternative hypotheses, and from there, hopefully, finding the truth.

The job of forensic interviewing is tricky and requires strong critical thinking skills.  The interviewer must be able to think fast and creatively, be able to multitask, have a good memory, and be constantly aware of his or her body language.  The interviewer’s behavior alone can either repel or attract the alleged victim in term of willingness to converse.  It has been estimated that over 50% of our communication is done in a nonverbal form.  Therefore, a child interviewer must put a priority on understanding what certain gestures mean.

 “Almost every part of our bodies can be used to communicate, be it the way one looks into another’s eyes or the way one crosses their legs.  The human face is arguably, though, the most expressive part of one’s body.  The eyes alone can reveal numerous emotions, like anger, fear and sadness; however, the importance of one part of the face that is sometimes overlooked is the eyebrows” (Rieman, T., 2008).

Thus, any professional in the field of forensic interviewing should invest time to learn body language.  It makes a significant difference in the amount of stress caused during the interview if one can understand what the child is communicating nonverbally.  It would also help the interviewer decide what questions to ask.  There’s no guide, no list of specific questions to ask a child of a given age at a given moment that the interviewer can memorize and use cook-book fashion.

In summary, the Forensic Interviewer must be an individual with personal skills that allow him or her to construct questions suitable for a particular situation quickly.  Because amongst children and cases, just as with snowflakes, there are no two alike.

The interviewer must be aware that children are highly vulnerable to suggestibility, tend to be inconsistent, can be easily be misled, struggle with recall, and not be eager to give narrative responses.  They might also have a motive to deceive and exaggerate.

Karen J. Saywitz and Thomas D. Lyon wrote an article few years back based on a scientific study that is probably the best illustration of the problems one can encounter while interviewing children.  “When children are asked to describe what they have seen, heard, or experienced, they bring their limitations along with their capabilities to the task” (Saywitz, K. J. and T. D. Lyon, 2002).  In this article they present results from a basic research conducted on developmental psychology, which reveal the following three factors affecting children during the interview:

1. Young children find free recall considerable more difficult than cued-recall and recognition.
2. Young children are particularly deferential to adults’ beliefs.
3. Young children have special difficulty when identifying the sources of their beliefs.

If exposed to wrong interviewing techniques, such as leading questioning, children acquiesce, and even worse, accept the false information as true, and incorporate it into subsequent memory for the event.  Later, children have trouble distinguishing between the original event and the memory that came with the leading questioning.  One amusing example of such problem was depicted in a study involving preschoolers.  A group of children was repeatedly asked to think about an event, creating mental images each time he or she did so.  Amongst the events were actual events they experienced in distant past and fictitious events. 

One group was asked about getting their hand caught in a mousetrap and having to go to the hospital to get it removed.  At the end of interviewing sessions that lasted for about 10 weeks, children were interviewed individually and nearly 60% of them produced false narratives of the fictitious events.  Some children even elaborated the story with an incredible amount of details, such as including more people and details in their version than they were given in the interviews.  One child believed the false story so much that, even when confronted, refused to accept that it never happened to him (Ceci S. J. and M. Bruck, 1995, Jeopardy in the Courtroom).

With that in mind, a true professional would avoid asking children specific, leading, misleading, coercive, and multiple questions.  And, once again, it takes not only an awareness of the problems, but skill implementing such knowledge and using the best techniques to promote the child’s optimal performance.  Such comes with extensive practice, experience, and honest devotion to labor of child interviewing.

There exists no statistic on what cities, counties and states use anatomical detailed dolls or drawings.  However, in the years of my practice with giving expertise on forensic interviews conducted in neighboring states, I have almost never seen an interview where the anatomical doll or drawing was used and was not subsequently misused.  In my experience, they are highly suggestive and have no place in a forensic interview.  It’s all right to introduce a stuffed bear into the interview process, but only as the last straw.

The interesting issue is — most forensic interviewers fail to allow the interview to develop.  They bring in the anatomical drawings or stuffed animals prior to reaching that point in the interview where it might be necessary to use drawings and dolls.  Forensic Interviewers fail to demonstrate patience.  The problem with Forensic Interviewers is they attend a two-day training and are taught to utilize the anatomical drawings and stuffed animals, but the training doesn’t provide guidance on when the anatomical drawings and stuffed animals should be implemented into the interview.  Most forensic interviewer trainers would say this is common sense and comes with experience.  Unfortunately, this isn’t common sense.  Sure, experience helps, as long as forensic interviewers are evaluated and taught not to jump the gun.

Amid the questioning standards, one more crucial part of child interviewing is omitted at times — videotaping, audio taping, stenographer use, and note taking during the interview.  Note taking, depending on the person, has the little to none accuracy.  Our memories acquire, store, and retrieve.  Memories of a conversation are readily contaminated by a multitude of factors, including past and present experience and expectation.

Many times police personnel interview children without realizing how challenging it can be to do it properly.  They then dare not record the disclosure, or only take a page of brief notes they tend to destroy right after making a biased summary of the interview several days later, and before any of this information is submitted to prosecutors and defense.  Then, the prosecution relies on these previously improperly collected testimonies in reference to consistencies of utterances, and everyone in the courtroom fails to notice how highly contaminated these statements truly are.  Consider this part of a Police Officer report:

“Mr. Alleged Perpetrator disclosed during polygraph that he fondled Mr. Alleged Victim, alleged victim’s younger brother and sister” (names have been substituted).

What does it report?  The report states the alleged perpetrator fondled three victims.  However, this is only one of the officers amongst those that were present in observation room during the polygraph test.  The other reporting officers and the recording of the polygraph test elicit the truth of the alleged perpetrator’s disclosure.  That person never disclosed any inappropriate touching with the siblings of the alleged victim.  This is one practical example of how the “mistake” in the report might have had immense consequences.

Most aggravating are medical personnel who interview children about sexual abuse during the medical examination.  This is a common practice.  The child is scheduled for a forensic interview and a medical exam.  The medical personnel assisting the child is aware the alleged victim will be interviewed right after the exam.  But the doctor or nurse decides they are competent enough to conduct a little investigation of their own.  They start with “So has anybody ever given you touches like this?” or “Children often tell me that they have been touched inappropriately, has that ever happened to you?”

Imagine what the child is going through at that moment.  He or she is already uncomfortable with examining procedures (they practically always involve genital examination), and is now pressured by an authority figure to disclose something.  The worst part comes when the child ends up being questioned and none of the conversation is even hand recorded.  Do you see what has happened?  The alleged victim has been just exposed to coercive questioning only to undergo stress of yet another interview, the statement’s been tainted, and almost none of the information collected was documented.  This hurts both sides of the case: it undermines the credibility of the alleged victim, and/or ratchets up the allegations against the perpetrator.  This is yet another one of the master pitfalls of the investigation.

When a Forensic Interview is properly conducted and the next day the Forensic Interviewer is hit by a truck the videotaped interview would speak for itself.  Indeed, so loudly that the allegation against the perpetrator is confirmed beyond doubt.  This takes considerable effort though — to walk a child through all the steps and to ask the right questions.  Problems that generally persist in forensic interviews are: asking leading and suggestive questions, failure to follow-up on questions which would demonstrate the interviewer might be considering an alternative hypothesis, and rewarding the child after they say something positive for the prosecution. 

Why don’t police officers conduct the interviews of alleged child abuse victims?  The reason, I presume, dates back years ago.  Some child advocates thought it would be better for children to be interviewed by non-threatening individuals.  The problem with not allowing the investigative officer to conduct the interview is they can’t get the feel as to whether they’re on the right track or not.  It’s much different when you interview a witness yourself.  You watch body language, which you can’t see through a two way mirror, you can hear the child’s breathing and watch the child’s eyes when they may be telling the truth or lying.  Consequently, the majority of police departments rely on Forensic Interviewers who have never arrested a suspect and did not interview all the witnesses.

The alleged victim’s mental health or counseling history should be reviewed.  Sometimes children who are subjected to “therapy” by overzealous counselors or therapists will suddenly “disclose” inappropriate touching.  Often, the interpretation of a child’s statements is “enhanced” by these “mandatory reporters” of abuse, who fear legal repercussions if they don’t report anything vaguely resembling abuse.  From such exaggerated “reports” have arisen countless allegations, which typically “evolve” into more serious situations as therapists bring out the sand and the paint and evoke drawings and sculpture from children, interpreting their random scribbles or blobs of sand as penises and “signs of abuse” or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

It is very important to note under which circumstances the child disclosed a particular incident, and also to whom such testimony was reported.  These hearsay accounts are often valuable for tracing any patterns of coaching, excessive interviewing and inconsistencies or “evolved” statements.  How detailed was the disclosure? Was this detail was provided spontaneously or in response to specific questions?  If a disclosure is spontaneous, with no apparent probing questions, then the allegation is more likely to be true.  Three tests applywhen determining the likelihood that a disclosure may be true:

1). Can the child reproduce conversations?  I have found that in every case where an allegation was later found to be false, the child claims that the offender said nothing and the child said nothing during the abuse.

2). Did the child spontaneously describe any “unplanned interruptions?”  The presence of such an element in disclosure tends to validate a genuine statement.

3). Is there an absolute absence of details, or does the child provide “unusual details?”  I find the complete absence of details even more compelling than an elaborated story.

One must also consider the child’s affect at the time of disclosure to be a separate and important factor.  Was the affect consistent throughout the interview and appropriate to the statements being made?  A competent investigation must be complete in its nature, which is achieved by evaluating family members, or persons associated with the alleged victim.  Search for a history of hyper-vigilance, and accusations of sexual abuse against other people in the past, as well as a history of possible sexual abuse suffered by parents or close friends.

Children can be used as tools by their parents, relatives or older friends.  Attempt to formulate a list of individuals who might confirm or refute any portion of the alleged victim’s disclosure.   Formulate alternative hypotheses and outline any mistakes and omissions done by the facilitating/caretaking offices, and child protective services. 

There exist many ways in which an interviewer might alter or compromise a witness’s memory through the conducting of improper witness interviews.

Questions must be open-ended, and expressions, together with responses, neutral.  At all times during the disclosure, the interviewer must remain willing to entertain the “null hypothesis” — that is, that nothing has happened and to make sure to cover the following elements of the alleged incident history:

– description of the perpetrator’s appearance
– locations where the abused occurred
– the extent of the sexual contact, body positioning and duration of any particular incident
– perception of pain or discomfort
– exposure to body fluids, and physical force
– details of ongoing verbal exchange during the abuse, means of refusal the alleged victim applied
– surrounding circumstances
– distraction, interruptions, etc. that terminated the occurrence

The alleged victim must be allowed to retrieve the experience by providing multiple opportunities for free-response. Other factors must also be observed during the child’s history, such as level of spontaneity when answering questions, guardedness, or appearing “rehearsed.”

Errors in the Interviewing Process may include the following:

1. Failure to videotape the interview, and selective audio taping for purposes of avoidance of demonstration of anatomical doll play.
2. Use of multiple, leading and suggestive questions in the interview.  This changed the nature of the interview.
3. Misuse of authority and forceful continuation of the interview even after the child demands, “I want out of here, now.”
4. Allowance of mother’s presence during the interview.  This could have been the reason the child didn’t want to talk.

 Child Sexual Abuse is a very complex and complicated type of allegation.  Forensic Interviewing is necessary to resolve a case of Child Sexual Abuse.  But as demonstrated throughout this article, Police Officers and Juries should be mindful that such interviews don’t always produce reliable testimonies.  Children were interviewed way before such terms as Forensic Interviewing surfaced and Interviewing Protocols were created, and children can be viable witnesses.  In current years of youth corruption and children’s inevitable exposure to multiple sources of sexual knowledge, the investigation must be able to count on a truly professional interview and interview analysis.  Unfortunately, Forensic Interviewing, as of now, has low standards on techniques implied.

Helpful Resources:

Plach, T. 2008. Investigating Allegations of Child and Adolescent Sexual Abuse. Charles C. Thomas Publisher, LTD. ISBN 978-0-398-07795-2. ()

Poole, D. A. and M. E. Lamb. 1998. Investigative Interviews of Children. American Psychological Association, Washington DC. ISBN 1-55798-500-6. ()()

Television statistics: retrieved from www.csun.edu/science/health/docs/tv&health.html on July 10, 2008.

Bull, R. and A. Memon. 1999. Handbook of the Psychology of Interviewing. John Wiley&Son LTD. ISBN 0471974439.  ()()

Saywitz, K. J. and T. D. Lyon. 2002. Memory and Suggestibility in the Forensic Interview, Coming to Grips with Children’s Suggestibility. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers. ISBN 0805830804.  ()()

Ceci, S. J. and M. Bruck. 1995. Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children’s Testimony. American Psychological Association, Washington DC. ISBN 1-55798-282-1.  ()

Hazelwood, R. R. and A. W. Burgess. 2008. Practical Aspects of Rape Investigation, Fourth edition. Taylor & Francis Group, LLC. ISBN 978-1-4200-6504-6.  ()

Bronson, P. .Learning to Lie. February 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.nymag.com/news/features/43893 on July 16, 2008.

Reiman, T.. The eyebrows. Body Language University. Retrieved from http://www.bodylanguageuniversity.com/members/191.cfm on July 16, 2008.

Morrison, J..2008. The first Interview, Third edition. The Guilford Press. ISBN: 978-1-59385-636-6.  ()

Credit for this article is given to:  Lawrence W. Daly, MSc
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