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Performing Developmentally Appropriate and Legally Defensible Interviews of Children PowerPoint PPT Presentation

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Performing Developmentally Appropriate and Legally Defensible Interviews of Children. Children's Suggestibilty. In most cases of CSA.

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Performing Developmentally Appropriate and Legally Defensible Interviews of Children

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Developmentally Appropriate


Legally Defensible

Interviews of Children

Children's Suggestibilty

In most cases of CSA

  • Definitive medical evidence (i.e., semen, STDs, pregnancy) is lacking {Non-specific findings are present in about 50% of victims; but less than 20% have medical findings diagnostic of sexual abuse}

  • Physical evidence (from the crime scene) is absent

  • There are no witnesses apart from the perpetrator and the victim

  • It’s the child’s word against the adult’s!

The Attack on the Interviewer

  • Investigators are often criticized for “leading” children to make false allegations of sexual abuse.

  • According to the National Center on the Prosecution of Child Abuse, this is currently the most often used defense in child sexual abuse cases.

  • It is also one of the most effective defenses in CSA cases.


Inappropriate leading and coercive interviewing of children has occurred in some highly publicized cases

The Kelly Michaels Case

  • In 1988, a school teacher named Kelly Michaels was convicted of 115 counts of sexual abuse against twenty 3 to 5 year-old children

  • She was sentenced to 47 years in prison.

The Kelly Michaels Case-Appealed

  • The Appeals Court of New Jersey later reversed her conviction on the basis that the interviews of the victims were highly leading.

  • The Prosecution then appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The New Jersey Supreme Court orders “taint hearings”

  • The N.J. Supreme Court upheld the reversal of conviction.

  • The Court found that the interviewing in this case was so flawed that, if the prosecution decided to retry the case, they must first hold a pre-trial “taint hearing” and show that despite improper interviewing techniques, the allegations of the child witnesses were sufficiently reliable to admit them as witnesses at trial.

Excerpt from transcript of a child interview in St. v. Michaels

QDid Kelly have hair? [referring to privates]

ANah, I know ‘cause it’s grown ups . . . I know about that.

QSo I guess that means you saw her private parts, huh? Did Kelly ask the kids to look at her private parts, or to kiss her private part or . . .

AI didn’t really do that . . . I didn’t even do that.

QBut she made you.

Later in the same interview (after the child has denied kissing Kelly’s private parts)

QDid it smell good? (referring to Kelly’s privates)


QHer private parts?

AI don’t know.

QDid it taste good? Did it taste like chocolate?

AHa, ha. No, I didn’t even do it . . .

Child Interview (continued)

QYou Wee Care kids seem so scared of her.

AI wasn’t. I’m not even. . .

QBut while you were there, were you real scared?

AI don’t know.

QWhat was so frightening about her, what was so scary about her?

AI don’t know. Why don’t you ask her?

In some cases, children were:

  • Told about the allegations of other children (contamination);

  • Not permitted to go to the bathroom or see their mother until they provided allegations (coercion);

  • Bribed with ice cream, etc. to provide allegations (bribery).


YES. Some children are suggestible—at least under certain circumstances.

Conditions Under Which Children Are Most Likely To Be Suggestible

  • When leading questions are asked repeatedly—especially with very young children (3 and 4 year olds are most suggestible)

  • When children don’t understand that it’s important to tell the truth

  • When they think it’s okay to “guess.”

  • When they don’t think it’s okay to “correct” the interviewer’s mistakes

The “New Wave” in Suggestibility Research

  • Stephen Ceci (Cornell) and colleagues

  • Research designed to MAXIMIZE children’s suggestibility

The “Sam Stone” studyThe Impact of Stereotypes and Leading Questions and Guessingon Young Children’s Accounts

5 & 6 year-olds


3 & 4 year-olds


“SAM STONE” STUDYPercent of children assenting to false allegations by the conclusion of the experiment:

Why were these children so suggestible?

Researchers often have to go to great lengths to lead children to provide elaborate accounts of non-events

  • A singular misleading question does not typically elicit elaborate accounts of non-events—even from 3- and 4-year-olds.

  • “We really had to work hard to get children to provide detailed accounts of non-events” Stephen Ceci

AGE was a factor (when combined with repetitive Leading Questions, Guessing, & Stereotyping)

  • The children in this study were 3 to 6 years old.

  • Very young children (especially 3 and 4-year-olds) are far more suggestible than older children and adults.

  • 10-11 year-olds are essentially equivalent to adults in suggestibility.


  • Children were repeatedly asked highly leading questions for weeks

  • This sometimes happens in real-life cases

“Stereotyping” was a factor

  • For several weeks, children were repeatedly told stories about Sam Stone being clumsy and as accidentally destroying things.

  • In real-life cases, children sometimes overhear one parent speaking badly about the other

Children were encouraged to “GUESS”

When children said they did not know who ripped the book or got the teddy bear dirty, they were asked:

“Who might have ripped the book/gotten the teddy bear dirty?”

There was no emphasis on TELLING THE TRUTH

Kids are not required to tell the truth in all situations, i.e., playing games, telling stories, casual conversations

Kid’s don’t assume that telling the truth is important in all situations

Young children who were not led or encouraged to guess during the Sam Stone study were quite accurate

  • “Of the 3- and 4-year-olds who were not exposed to repetitive and highly leading questions or stereotypes about the ‘offender,’ and who were not asked to “guess” answers, 90% were still accurate after three months.”

    Stephen Ceci

“Source Misattribution”

Misidentifying the Source of one’s MEMORY

Did it really happen or did I only hear about it?

The “Mousetrap” Study

Source Misattribution does occur under certain circumstances-especially with 3 and 4 year olds


Anatomical Dolls and other props can serve as “Distracters”

  • This is especially true for children under 5 years old and for older children who tend to be distractible.

Dolls of any sort should not be used by very young children for demonstration purposes

  • Children younger than approximately 3½ years old have not yet mastered “symbolic representation” and are therefore unable to use dolls and other props to accurately depict what they have experienced.

  • It is less risky to use them for body parts identification

Position of APA’s Task Force on the use of Anatomical Dolls(1995)

  • Research to date mainly supports the use of AD Dolls as a communication or memory aid for children 5 years or older, albeit with a certain risk of contributing to some children’s errors if misleading questions are used along with the dolls.

Other Media Are Less Controversial and Often as Effective As Anatomical Dolls

  • Research to date has not shown that Anatomical Dolls are far superior to less controversial media for eliciting accurate accounts from children

  • Non-anatomical dolls

  • ‘Cookie-cutter’ and Stick-figure Drawings

  • Anatomical drawings (however, such drawings might provide sexually naïve children with new information, i.e., pubic hair)

  • Interviewers should always attempt to elicit a clear “verbal” description of sex acts

Similarities Between the Research and “some” real-life cases

  • Sometimes children are questioned for weeks or months in a highly leading fashion by well-intentioned but biased parents, therapists, investigators and others.

  • Sometimes children are influenced by what they overhear, i.e., angry parent talking to a friend about the other parent.

  • Sometimes (though probably rarely) parents or others deliberately influence children to make false sex abuse allegations.

Beware of the Misapplication of Suggestibility Research to Real-life Sex Abuse Cases

  • Much of the suggestibility research has limited “ecological validity,” i.e., the extent to which the research mimics real-world situations

    • Sexual abuse differs in many ways from the type of events that researches have attempted to ‘lead’ children about, such as:

      • Sam Stone accidentally soiling a teddy bear or ripping a book

      • Getting one’s finger caught in a mousetrap

According to Ceci, it was not easy to lead children to make false allegations—even when the allegation did not relate to sexual abuse

  • It is probably far more difficult to lead children to make false allegations against someone they know and love (e.g., a parent) than it is to lead them to make such allegations against a stranger (e.g., Sam Stone)

Beware of the Misapplication of Suggestibility Research to Children of Different Ages

  • Because there are significant AGE DIFEERENCES in suggestibility, it would be inappropriate to generalize research findings about preschoolers to older children

    • By the time children are 10-11 years old, they are essentially equivalent to adults with regard to suggestibility

Suggestibility is NOT a UNIDIRECTIONAL phenomenon

  • Children can be ‘led’ in more than one direction

  • Some non-abused children can be led to make false allegations of sexual abuse

  • It is also true that sexually abused children can be led to deny or minimize their abuse. In fact, this is probably far more common than non-abused children being led to falsely claim they were sexually abused

Six Ways to

Reduce the Risk of

"Leading" Children

During Investigative Interviews

Six Ways to Reduce the Risk of “Leading” Children During Investigative Interviews

  • Encourage ‘reality-based’ “truthful” reporting

  • Develop rapport

  • Avoid asking leading questions

  • Rely on open-ended questions as much as possible

  • Discourage guessing

  • Empower the child to disagree with you and to correct your mistakes

Excerpt from a Competence Hearing Involving a Young Child

Judge: What happens when you tell a lie?

Child: I could go to Hell.

Judge: Is that all?

Child: Isn’t that enough?


  • Kids don’t necessarily assume that telling the truth is important during investigative interviews and they need to be told.

  • Use a developmentally appropriate means of assessing their understanding of “truth” and “lie”

Developmental Considerations When Questioning Children About “Truth” and “Lie”

Even though kids as young as 3-years-old often recognize the difference between lying and telling the truth and recognize that lying is ‘bad,’ they often appear incompetent when they are questioned in a developmentally inappropriate fashion


Children under 9 or 10 are not good at:

explaining differences

defining terms

generating examples

Developmentally Inappropriate“Truth-Lie” questions for children under 9

  • “What’ is the difference between the truth and a lie?”

  • “What does it mean to tell the truth?”

  • “Can you give me an example of a lie/the truth?”

The Lyon & Saywitz Method of Assessing Young Children’s Competence to Take the Oath

  • Many children as young as 3 and 4 have been found to be competent when using this method.

  • Involves four “difference” tasks and four “morality” tasks

Introduction of the Truth-Lie Task

“I talk with lots of children. It’s important that they always tell me the truth.

So, before we begin, I want to make sure that you understand how important it is to tell the truth.”


Here's a picture. Look at this animal--what kind of animal is this?

OK, that's a [child's label].

LISTEN to what these girls say about the [child's label]. One of them will tell a LIE and one will tell the TRUTH, and YOU'LL tell ME which girl tells the TRUTH.

(point to girl on the left) THIS girl looks at the [child's label] and says "IT'S a [child's label]."

(point to girl on the right) THIS girl looks at the [child's label] and says "IT'S a FISH."

Which girl told the TRUTH?


Here's another picture. Look at this food--what kind of food is this?

OK, that's a [child's label].

LISTEN to what these girls say about the [child's label]. One of them will tell a LIE, and one will tell the TRUTH.

(point to girl on the left) THIS girl looks at the [child's label] and says "IT'S an [child's label]."

(point to girl on the right) THIS girl looks at the [child's label] and says "IT'S a BANANA."

Which girl told the TRUTH?

Here's a School Principal. She wants to know what happened to these boys.

Well, ONE of these boys is GONNA GET IN TROUBLE for what he says, and YOU'LL tell ME which boy is GONNA GET IN TROUBLE.

LOOK (point to left boy). This boy tells the TRUTH.

(point to right boy) This boy tells a LIE.


Morality Task #1



Here's a Lady who comes to visit these girls at home. She wants to know what happened to these girls.

Well, ONE of these girls is GONNA GET IN TROUBLE for what she says.

LOOK(point to left girl) This girl tells a LIE.

(point to girl on right) This girl tells the TRUTH.


Example of Lyon & Saywitz Truth/Lie Method Used During a Forensic Interview

It is unlikely that a child would ‘guess’ all the correct answers

  • The likelihood of the child guessing the correct answer to all 4 “difference” questions andall 4 “morality” questions is about 1 in 400. (The same as tossing a coin and getting “heads” 8 times in a row)

Elicit a Promise to Tell the Truth

  • Children are more likely to at least ‘try’ to tell the truth when they make a promise to do so

Advantages of the Lyon & Saywitz Method for Assessing Children’s Understanding of “Truth-Lie”

  • Because it is developmentally appropriate for very young kids, it maximizes their likelihood of appearing competent

  • The visual images capture the attention of young kids

  • It has been tested on the front-lines in real-life child sexual abuse cases

  • It passes muster in court.

Practice SessionLyon & Saywitz Truth-Lie Tasks

Website for color version of Lyon & Saywitz’s Truth-Lie Assessment


    Download: “Qualifying children to take the oath”


  • Reduces suggestibility when child knows what’s expected.

  • Enhances trust and greater willingness to talk about distressing topics.

  • Reduces child’s anxiety, thereby enhancing cognitive performance, i.e., the child is more attentive and better able to access their memory.

  • It encourages more spontaneity and detail in the child’s responses.

What can interviewers do to put children at ease?

#3 Avoid Asking Leading Questions

  • A leading question suggests the desired or expected response

    • That must have hurt, huh?

    • Did he do that to you in your bedroom, too?

  • A highly leading question also tempts or pressures the child to agree with the suggested response.

    • Daddy touched your pee-pee, didn’t he?

    • Your Daddy would never touch you in a bad way, would he?


Examples of Open-Ended Questions

“Tell me all about . . . ”

“Tell me more about . . . ”

“What happened right before/right after . . .

Option-Posing Questions

  • True/False and Multiple Choice Questions

  • Example. {Assume that the child previously told the interviewer that Roger touched her pee-pee—but she has never alleged that Roger did anything else to her}

    • Were you in your bedroom or in Roger’s room when Roger touched your pee-pee?

    • Did Roger lick your pee-pee, too?

Substituting Open-ended Questions for Option-Posing Question

  • {Assume that the child previously told the interviewer that Roger touched her pee-pee—but she has never alleged that Roger did anything else to her}

    • You told me that Roger touched your pee-pee. Tell me all about that.

    • What happened right before/right after Robert touched your pee-pee?

    • Did Roger do anything else to you? (If so) Tell me all about that.

    • Did Roger do anything else to your pee-pee? (If so) Tell me all about that.

Investigative interviewers tend to rely more on Option-Posing questions than on Open-ended questions

  • Approximately one-third of the questions asked by CSA investigators are option-posing questions

  • Only about 6% of CSA investigators’ questions are Open-ended invitations (i.e., “Tell me more about that”)

  • This is true even though children’s responses to Open-ended questions are generally far more accurate!

Practice SessionOption-posing questions(yes/no, multiple choice) vs. Open-ended Questions“Tell me all about . . .”“Tell me more about . . .”“What happened right before/right after . . . ”

The “Practice Narrative”Using Open-ended Questions to Elicit More Detailed Accounts

  • In typical conversations with adults, young children provide minimal detail.

  • When sexually abused children were asked open-ended questions about neutral/pleasant topics early in the interview (before abuse-related questioning), they later provided 2½ times as much detail about their abuse.

The Practice Narrative

  • “Tell me all about”:

    • What you like to do for fun

    • What you did today from the time you woke up until I came to see you today

    • Your birthday party (a recent holiday, etc)

  • Follow up with: “Tell me more about . . . ” “What happened right after . . . ?”

Open-ended Questions(Sensory focused)

  • Tell me everything you SAW

  • Tell me everything you HEARD


The investigative interview is quite UNLIKE children’s normal ways of responding to adults.

When questioned by adults, children normally:

“Guess” responses to questions

Go along with adults and avoid correcting adults


  • Explain that, if you ask a question and the child does not know the answer, DON’T GUESS.

    “If I ask you a question and you don’t know the answer, please don’t guess! Just say “I don’t know.”

  • Role-play and provide praise and corrective feedback.

  • More effective with school-aged kids

Discouraging Guessing

If I ask you a question and you don’t know the answer, just say, “I don’t know.” Okay?

So if I asked you, “Do I have a dog” what would you say?

“I don’t know.”

Right. You don’t know.

If child guesses, provide corrective feedback.



Encouraging kids to correct your mistakes

  • Deliberately make errors unrelated to the suspected abuse and encourage child to correct you.

  • More effective for school-aged kids

Teaching kids to correct your mistakes

  • If I get mixed up and make a mistake, I want you to correct me. I need you to help me get it right

  • So, if I said that your name is (incorrect name), what would you say?

  • That’s right.

  • So if I make a mistake, please tell me and help me get it right, okay?

Children Are More Likely To Correct Your Mistakes If You Appear To Be Uninformed About The Facts

  • Convey a lack of knowledge about the facts of the case

    “I wasn’t there so I need you to tell me all about that.”

  • Use the “Colombo” approach

    “I’m mixed up.”


  • When children know what the interviewer wants from them (e.g., the “ground rules”), their desire to please becomes an asset.

Strategies for

Abuse-Related Questioning

Transitioning to Abuse-Related Questioning

  • Always start with:

    • Tell me why you think I came to talk to you today.

    • “Because Bobby touched me”

    • “I talked to my teacher and she told me I should tell somebody”

    • “Billy’s been messin’ with me”

    • (Because of what Bobby did)

If child provides relevant information, always follow up with an open-ended question

  • Tell me all about (whatever the child stated)

If child does not provide relevant information to“Tell me why you think I came to talk to you today”ask Non-leading Focused Questions

Context-Focused Questions(Re: the setting of the suspected abuse)

  • Tell me what happens:

    • When you go to school?

    • When you went to visit your Dad?

    • When Uncle Johnny baby-sits you?

People-Focused Questions

  • What does [name various people in the child’s life including the suspect] like to do with you?

  • Is there anything that [same person] likes to do that you don’t like?

Prior-Disclosure-Focused Questions(Re: the child’s prior disclosure to others)

  • I heard that something might have happened to you. Tell me all about that.

  • I heard that you talked to [teacher, mom] today. Tell me what you talked about

  • Did you tell [reporter] that someone was [vague description using child’s words, e.g., “messing with you”)? Tell me all about that.

Clarifying Young Children’s Terminology for Their Own Body Parts

  • Before abuse-related questioning, have the child name various body parts and functions on a “cookie cutter” drawing, but do not focus disproportionately on the genitals


  • After child makes an abuse-related allegation, e.g., “She licked my coochie,” have the child identify “coochie” by:

    • Pointing to his/her own body

    • Marking with an “X” or by circling this part on a ‘cookie-cutter’ drawing or a same-gender, anatomical drawing of a child

Clarifying Young Children’s Terminology for Body Parts on the ‘Suspect’

  • After the child has made an abuse-related allegation involving a suspect’s body part, e.g., “Donald put his dingaling in my pooty,” have the child identify this part by:

    • Having the child mark this part on a cookie-cutter drawing with an “X” or by circling it

    • Having the child draw this part (if able)

    • (It is best to avoid using an anatomical drawing until after the child has described/drawn this part, e.g., “It was pink and there was red hair on it—and a brown spot in the middle.”

Seek Corroboration!

  • Many children of all ages are unwilling to discuss their possible sexual abuse—regardless of the forensic interviewer’s skill

  • Younger children in particularly can become confused about what really happened—especially if exposed to prior suggestions and leading—and are not able to provide reliable information

  • Oftentimes, the only way to arrive at the “truth” is by seeking corroboration, i.e., crime scene evidence, suspect interview, etc.

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