NICHD Researchers Improve Techniques for Interviewing Child Abuse Victims

A research team has developed new techniques to help police interviewers and child protective service workers get more accurate information from victims of child abuse. The new techniques rely on asking witnesses to recall what happened to them, rather than relying on cues from the interviewer, as do current interviewing techniques.

The interviewing technique, described in the June 2000, issue of Child Abuse and Neglect, is the only successful attempt to translate research-based knowledge into a concrete procedure that interviewers can use when questioning children suspected of being abused.

The research team was composed of scientists at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD); the University of Haifa; Israel, the Israeli Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs; and a psychologist in private practice.

"These findings show that young children can provide a lot of information from recall memory," said Michael Lamb, Ph.D., Chief of NICHD's Section on Social and Emotional Development.

Interviewing techniques based on recall memory, Dr. Lamb explained, involve asking open ended question, like "What did you do this morning?" In contrast, conventional techniques for interviewing child witnesses rely on recognition memory. Recognition-based techniques involve asking subjects very specific questions, such as: "Did you eat breakfast?" "Did you drive to work?" and "Did you read the newspaper?"

Information obtained through recognition memory, however, is less likely to be accurate than is information obtained from recall. Dr. Lamb said that this is because such questions contain cues that may prompt false reports. For instance, a person who was asked if he had read the paper that morning might reply that he had read it, even if he hadn't, because this is what he usually does, rather than what he actually did that morning. In addition, some recognition prompts may induce people to guess.

Research psychologists learned of the greater accuracy of recall memory in a series of laboratory experiments conducted over the last two decades. Based on these observations, Dr. Lamb and his coworkers then put together a set of guidelines for interviewers to use.

In addition to heavy reliance on techniques for helping subjects recall events, the new techniques also directed interviewers to prepare children to be informative by:

  • introducing themselves before the interview
  • explaining the purpose of the interview
  • explaining that it is acceptable to tell the interviewer they don't know the answer to a question
  • explaining to children that they should correct the interviewer if he or she is mistaken
  • providing children with practice responding to open ended prompts when describing their experiences.

During training, each interviewer practiced the new interviewing techniques on other interviewers taking part in the study. Next, the interviewers employed the new techniques on the job, when interviewing children who were thought to have been abused. The researchers observed the interviewers as they questioned the children, reviewed transcripts of the interviews, and gave the interviewers constructive feedback on how to improve their performance.

After the training was completed, the interviewers used the interview techniques in investigations involving a group of 50 children suspected of being abused. When these interviews were completed, the interviews were compared with interviews of an equal number of children questioned by the interviewers before they had undertaken their training.

The researchers found that after the training, the interviewers obtained three times more information from recall than they had before they adopted the new techniques. Similarly, 40 percent of the interviewers' prompts before the training were what the researchers termed "risky prompts," as opposed to 20 percent after the training. Risky prompts involve asking children to confirm such specific details as skin to skin contact or penetration, and may lead children to report things that did not actually happen.

Dr. Lamb explained that risky prompts are sometimes necessary in police work when children fail to mention crucial pieces of information. Dr. Lamb emphasized that such prompts are best left until the end of an interview, however, so that they do not "contaminate" the testimony obtained through recall techniques.

"These findings allow us to use our knowledge of child development to allow child witnesses to be as informative as they can be," he said.

The new method makes it possible to get higher quality information from witnesses as young as 4 years of age, which, in turn, makes it easier to determine both what happened to the children and how to intervene.


top of pageBACK TO TOP