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Child abuse, in itself, does not "doom" people to lives of horrible suffering. -- Jim Hopper

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Conducting Forensic Interviews with Children

Identifying and correcting problems with forensic interviews of alleged child sexual abuse victims: A holistic environmental approach

Kenneth R. Pangborn, MS
The A-Team


Conducting Forensic Interviews with Children

Forensic interviewers generally do not receive adequate training to prepare them to conduct child sexual abuse interviews. Revision of training, facilities and techniques are suggested. A forensic interview can modify a child's recall of events they may have experienced. This article recounts major problems found in observations of forensic interviews with children and makes recommendations to increase the reliability of the responses from children and assure quality control.


In the 1980's there was a substantial increase in reporting of child sexual abuse allegations in cases all across the United States. Media attention to highly charged cases, such as the Jordan Minnesota incident and the McMartin preschool trials, rode the wave of popular and media hysteria.

The result of these cases lead to intense criticism of the methods being used by those conducting the interviews. Articles by attorneys were very critical of the heavy handed, and leading, questions by the professionals conducting the interviews.

The McMartin case was notable for how the defense was able to demonstrate that the procedures used by Kee MacFarlane of Children's Institute International were faulty. [1] The videos of the child interviews in those cases provided a great deal of ammunition useful by defense attorneys against those techniques. The problems outlined in this article appear not to be confined solely to the United States but appear to be common through much of the world.

The number of reported incidents of child abuse in the United States is now roughly about 3.6 million assaults per year (National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, (2003). [2]

Training of police and child protective investigators since the 1990's has improved with respect to the heavy handed leading questioning and badgering of children that was previously common, that interviewers consciously or unconsciously to prompt children to give answers the interviewer was looking for.

However, "Confirmatory Bias," while less obvious today, continues to dominate prosecution-oriented interviews by police and social services agencies. Today, the interviewer is less likely to observably confront, or bribe, the child to give the desired answers, in favor of talking over the child or changing the subject when they begin to give the answers not favorable to the interviewer's objective. The interviewers may ignore any contradictory responses that don't fit their view of the case. In this process, the person conducting the interview may see their mission as one to confirm or validate the key allegations needed to prosecute the case. Information that contradicts the allegations is ignored or discarded.

The process begins to go wrong when forensic examiners are in contact with investigating detectives, or other officers, agency workers, and/or family members with definite agendas. Police and social services agencies ignore the fact these contacts tend to contaminate, "taint" the interviewer's attitude toward of the case. Close personal working alliances tend to confound the process and taint the information obtained. To date, however, research on the impact of this problem is lacking. [3]

Purpose and Methodology

This article reviews professionally accepted literature on forensic interviews of children within Child Psychological and Child Psychiatric professions, and contrasts them to observations of the methods presently used by many law enforcement and social services agencies in the United States as seen in video documentation of the interviewing from those agencies.

From what I can observe from the videos provided me, most agencies that provide Forensic Interviews apparently tend to "over interview" children.

Major mental health professions now recommend children be interviewed a minimal number of times. Most experts suggest no more than three interviews, a small number accept a maximum of six. The consensus is that more than three interviews of a child who was allegedly victimized, including those of a parent, tend to modify the child's statements thus making them unreliable. [4]

It takes great effort to compensate for problems associated with multiple interviews of children. However, they can be ameliorated by limiting the number of interviews to three. Law enforcement contact with the child should be confined to one well-trained specialist. Parents should be cautioned against satisfying their curiosity by repeatedly questioning the child.

The problems of the police-child contacts go beyond just the number of interviews; a police station isn't an appropriate place to interview a child. The setting can be intimidating and send misleading signals to the child, especially if the officer is in uniform, or wearing a badge, and carrying handcuffs and a gun. These factors are problematic and should be avoided. Ideally, there should be as few distractions as possible.

Some interviewers have video cameras in the room. They seem to believe that they should tell the child they're "making a movie," a very bad idea. This introduces an element of play-acting to the interview process. Does the child say what really happened, or has the child adopted make-believe, as if it's movie?

Children don't have an intrinsic need to know why the session is being taped. Young children lack the skills to make that kind of cognitive distinction between reality and play. By the same token, it's important not to clutter up, and further contaminate, the interview by concluding that it's necessary to do this so that "child testimony can be avoided." That's not why we're here today! Most experts agree that ideally children should not be made aware that a video is being made.

Confirmatory Bias

We tend to see what we expect to see. This is especially true of forensic interviews when the interviewer has a collegial relationship with other members of the agencies who have had contact with the child, as well as family members.

A work dynamic forms in a police or social services agency in which other individuals involved in the process feel compelled to "fill in" the interviewer on the "background" of the case. This only serves to enhance confirmatory bias. A clear agency or inter-agency policy against this should be posted for all forensic interviewers to see. The forensic interviewer should have only basic information as to what is alleged and some demographic information on the child. The person conducting the forensic interview should be as unbiased and uncontaminated as possible.

Nothing contaminates a forensic interview of a child as much as a bias that prompts someone to become a "validator" on a mission to extract information necessary to successfully prosecute the accused. They ignore or reject all information that doesn't fit in with their preconception of the case and lead to supporting charges against the accused. They ignore children's exculpatory statements because they're sole mission is confirm the allegations, not elicit the child's own statements.

A common and severe problem for forensic interviewers is the danger of becoming jaded. Interviewers who become "involved" in these cases will over time build a set of prejudices based on their experiences. This causes them to "project" there past experiences into the contemporary interview. As well intentioned as the individual interviewers may be, by filtering how they conduct a forensic interview based on their extensive past experience, the problem for the present interview is contamination from the interviewer's confirmatory bias.

While total objectivity is impossible, we need to find some mechanism to test for the condition when it gets to the level of being irredeemable. New testing instruments are needed to determine the level of the contamination of the interviewer's objectivity, and some manner to tell us if and when they can be rehabilitated to resume the work.

When the interviewer detects in themselves that they are "anticipating" the child's responses, and arrives at a point of; "I know what you mean" in their own minds because they have done this so many times before the risk of contamination at some point becomes inescapable. The problem is that you can arrive at a point that you are seeing things that are not really there.

Flawed Environment (Law Enforcement)

The process within most agencies is problematic because the premise they start out with doesn't help find out the truth. It's aimed at securing a conviction, whether justified or not. Today's process is designed solely as a tool for prosecuting the accused, not finding the truth. It is outcome oriented, one in which truth is secondary to getting information that tends to support the prosecution goal.

In most communities, law enforcement forensic interviews tend to be done in police stations. The interviewers are typically police officers either in uniform or plain clothes but visibly equipped with the usual police paraphernalia — badge, guns, handcuffs, police radio and the like. This has an extremely contaminative effect on the forensic interview.

Children are eager to please adults of "high status" and nothing is as impressive to a small child as being alone with a police officer. Sometimes social services caseworkers can be equally intimidating.

Most agencies reason, "It's not our job to do the work of the defense." If exculpatory information comes up in an interrogation, therefore, the interviewer will ignore it and will get away from it as quickly as possible. If the child starts to make exculpatory statements the interviewer then tends to "talk over" the child and reverts back to a point where the child gave "helpful" responses.

When we examine police interviews today, we commonly see the total absence of any technique to test whether the child might have been coached by someone prior to the interview, or the extent to which such contacts may render the child's statements unreliable. There are a number of ways to detect and overcome such external influences.

Dr. William O'Donahue outlined these techniques in a training program he developed under a grant from the Department of Human Services. Forensic interviewers all too often ignore these problems because they lack the training and skills to use them. And they go against the mission they have undertaken.

One suggestion is to ask the child if there is anything important that they need to tell them. In many cases a child who has been coached will blurt out details they were told, because they don't want to forget what they were told.

Sometimes the coaching is well intentioned, sometimes it isn't. The Forensic Interviewer should separate one from the other. The interviewer should pay close attention to things the child may say, such as comments about what is going to happen to the accused. "Will he be arrested?" "Will he go to jail?"

The interviewer should question on those points to ascertain the exact level of influence there has been on the child; how much information has been transferred to the child. Children will also give clues, '(naming a person) said that'... This should be, but sadly often isn't, a red flag that should be pursued.

A good Forensic Interviewer needs to begin with this information in order to have quality control for what is to come later — the meat of the allegations. A good forensic interview should have a solid foundation; the job should be seen not as just to get statements to aid the prosecution, but to get statements that are accurate. It is also suggested that the forensic interviewer be aware of any external influences on the child, such as a divorce, child custody proceeding or an overly involved grandparent or other family member.

I have reviewed several hundred videos of Forensic child interviews in the past 30 years of my profession. Most of the time the problems begin with an agenda to use the video in lieu of the child's testimony. It is hard to cross-examine a DVD. The belief is that the video makes cross-examination impossible. However a skilled defense attorney can demonstrate to the court the need to cross-examine the child.

Thus, an improper interview can be used against the child. It can subject the child to rigorous cross-examination to exploit vulnerabilities found in the interview. The net result in many jurisdictions has been in "Taint hearings" to rule the child's testimony "incompetent" because the Forensic Interviewer ignored critical information during the interview. [see State v. Michaels, 136 N.J. 299, 642 A.2d 1372 (1994); State v. Michaels, 264 N.J.Super. 579, 625 A.2d 489 (App. Div. 1993), and its copious progeny.]

In a specific recent example, a midwestern city police detective who does the forensic interviews was dealing with a case in which a specific charge was indecent exposure. The child gave contradictory statements about the events as to whether the alleged perpetrator knew she was in the room or not.

The interviewer ignored the child's description of the man's penis being flaccid. The arrest documents, however, claimed he had an erection. In that state an essential element of the crime is that the exposure was deliberate, the purpose being for his sexual gratification or to induce a sexual interest in the child.

Not only did the interviewer ignore the child's statement and talked over it and changed the subject, she missed completely the child's flat affect. There were many clues that screamed for further follow-up. But it was ignored, most likely because the interviewer knew it was a black hole. It was a situation that in all probability would have made the child's statements unreliable and sunk the case.

The ideal is for the Forensic Interviewer to be neutral. This is sometimes almost impossible, as people who work in the field of child protection often becomes jaded and bring their expectations into the room with them as they conduct the interviews. It is a form of wish fulfillment or a self-fulfilling prophecy. They find what they expect or want to find. Professional detachment is lost, and too much of an advocacy role is assumed. The only way to guard against this is to rotate people in the job frequently and not assign them to do field investigations of child abuse if there is any hope to bring them back after a break.

It is also a matter of economics. Most departments don't feel they have the budgets to do things right. Actually the lack of adequate training and facilities will be more of a burden on budgets in the final analysis.

Conducting Forensic Interviews with Children


What remains a problem to this day with many law enforcement agencies and social services agencies is, first, they don't provide child friendly setting. This can lead to the child becoming intimidated and preoccupied with the police aspect of their environment.

When children start verbalizing things about police work they are demonstrating that they have been getting the wrong message. This should be a red flag to the forensic interviewer. The child friendly atmosphere should be in another building without the drama of a police station or social services agency.

I should not have to bang on the wall that the very environment contaminates the examination. The message a child gets is of being a crime victim. This can, and usually does, influence the child.

While a police station or social services facility has bad connotations for the reliability of a child's interview, so does the opposite extreme employed by social workers when they create a fantasy Pee Wee's playhouse environment. Yes, the child loves the staggering array of so many toys but it brings an atmosphere beyond the cognitive capacity of young children. It also sends the wrong message.

This isn't "play time" or "pretend." The environment should be neutral, even bland. An ideal is something familiar to a child, something non-threatening that doesn't send messages of any kind to the child. A suggestion for a good environment might be something resembling a living room or kitchenette — something more of a home and less challenging environment for a child.

The main issue, however, is the training of the forensic interviewers who will be doing the work with the children. It is important that they have the knowledge, skills and self-awareness of their own biases. And that they zealously guard against being contaminated with too much external information, such as through fellow police officers or case workers who want to "help" by filling them in on information they feel is important.

This "team" concept is flawed when it comes to the child interview. The interviewer needs to know minimum facts as to the things being alleged and minor demographics on the child. Too much additional information merely serves to create a confirmatory bias. Perfect neutrality is probably the impossible dream, but perfect bias is the perfect nightmare.

The entire environment of the Forensic interview is important. It needs clear definition and clear strategies. This should start with the appearance of the forensic interviewer themselves. We should pay attention to this detail so that the appearance of the interviewer is non-threatening to the child. It can be things uncomfortable for us to address, such as the interviewer being too tall or too large. The way the interviewer is dressed is important.

The facility is important as was previously noted. It will need to be as free from distractions as possible. This includes visual distractions and auditory distractions. Most safeguards should go without saying, but like all warning labels, they come because some people will make them necessary, even professionals.

An additional problem comes with the questionable practice of using the anatomically detailed dolls. Many agencies continue in the use of the dolls, but controversy persists that they also add an element of contamination. [5]

About Kenneth R. Pangborn, M.S.

Mr. Pangborn is a certified member of the American Society of Trial Consultants, (ASTC) the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, (APSAC) the International Academy of Law and Mental Health (IALMH) and several other professional organizations. He has a BA degree in Child Development and a Master of Science Degree in Child Psychology, graduating Cum Laude and is a member of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health.

Mr. Pangborn began his work on child custody, child abuse and criminal cases in 1976. He was a pioneer in recognizing false claims of child abuse in child custody, divorce cases, and he developed case strategies others try to imitate today. He also served as a speaker at seminars held by VOCAL (Victims If Child Abuse Laws). [Learn more...]


Additional Bibliography

March 28, 2009