Webinar presenters Dr. Wendy Dutton and Lindsay Gephardt answered a number of your questions after their presentation, Forensic Interviews of Children: What Justice Professionals Need to Know. Here are just a few of their responses.
Audience Question: Wendy, realistically, how young can a child be to do a forensic interview with?
Dr. Wendy Dutton: Well, that depends on the child. I think the youngest I’ve ever interviewed who could communicate at least basic information about what happened was a two year, eight-month-old girl. But for the most part, generally, three years old and older.
Audience Question: When we say, children, is this strictly anyone under the legal age of majority? so 18 or does it take into account that transitional brain of maturation until 26? What is it that when we say children?
Dr. Wendy Dutton: Well, it’s interesting. That’s actually a very interesting question. I have found, I interview adults as well, and I have used the same interview technique. I might tweak the language a little bit, but this type of interview technique, the NICHD protocol, is great for interviewing adults as well. Obviously, when you’re interviewing younger children, you have to be aware of, you know, making questions as simple and clear as possible. Whereas adults may have an easier time answering things like compound questions, but I found this interview technique works well. Detectives I work with use these same techniques in their suspect interviews, and it works well for them as well.
Audience Question: What is considered a child-friendly room? So, does that mean an interview room that’s filled with toys and crayons and color books? What exactly does that mean, a child-friendly interview room?
Dr. Wendy Dutton: I would suggest something more living room like, maybe a big armchair, or a loveseat, or something like that, nice neutral pictures on the wall. I don’t use any props or toys with the exception of maybe a plush toy, or crayons or paper, or with children who are exceptionally hyper, maybe some playdough. But generally, something more living room-like, rather than a typical interrogation room in a police agency.
Audience Question: What’re some easy ways to build rapport with a child?
Dr. Wendy Dutton: Well, probably the first and best is listening and focus on what children are interested in. So, one of the typical ways I start off in interviews is, “Tell me some things you like to do.” And as the child mentions things that they like, I will focus my attention and be really interested in playing soccer or artwork, or the music that they like, or things like that, and really listening and showing interest in what kids are interested in.
Audience Question: If a child is not willing to talk, how long will a counselor continue with the interview? And I’m suspecting, they mean, counselor, meaning in the legal sense that the attorney will continue with the interview before either changing out with another counselor or stopping altogether?
Dr. Wendy Dutton: Well, let me be clear, forensic interviewing is very different than counseling. So, typically, we follow the interview protocol. Now, if I have a child who seems shy, or embarrassed or fearful, then certainly I would ask a question like, “I can see, you’re having a hard time talking or something making it hard to talk today,” and then the child gives me an answer, I will try to work with whatever the child told me to maybe alleviate their anxiety. For example, if they’re embarrassed, I might tell them, no matter what you say, I’m not going to judge you. Or if they’re scared, I might invite them to talk about what they find is scaring them and see where that goes.
Audience Question: So how do you know exactly when to end a forensic interview so as not to burn out the child or potentially hurt the interview as a whole?
Dr. Wendy Dutton: Well, with children who are reluctant to talk, I don’t press them. I follow, you know, I might start with open-ended invitations. I might then have some what we call cued recall questions based on the case facts ready to go. Again, if the child appears reluctant, I might explore that a little bit. But if a child absolutely refuses to talk, I’m not going to pressure them. For example, I might try coloring pictures with them if it’s a young child or takes steps to consult with child protection to see if there’s a way we can protect the child and maybe come back another time for a second interview.
Audience Question: Is it best to take notes afterward and then watch the recording and kind of build your notes from that? So that way then you can focus predominantly on the interview and be in the moment? Or do you take notes during that conversation?
Dr. Wendy Dutton: I don’t take notes. I find that they get in the way, and I have the luxury of working in an Advocacy Center where a detective and child protection worker are watching by closed-circuit television. And they are taking notes. So, if I miss something, or there’s something else that they need to ask about that, hopefully, my team will assist. Joint investigations are the gold standard, and I rely upon detectives and child protection workers to help me in these interviews. So hopefully, they are taking notes, and I can go back in and ask additional questions if I need to.
Lindsay Gephardt: I 100% agree with Dr. Dutton on that. As part of the multi-disciplinary team, making sure you have those investigators and caseworkers watching because they may have something that they picked up on that you didn’t. Very helpful.
Audience Question: Why is it not permitted for a defense attorney to be an observer only, not acting as a participant, or is a defense attorney allowed to observe?
Lindsay Gephardt: Generally speaking, no, because the investigations are ongoing. And so, a defense attorney really isn’t privy to that information until the discovery process has been initiated. And so, generally, we don’t allow that and it’s basically to make sure that there’s no improper influence coming from the perpetrator’s side of that juncture.