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2002 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 8, No. 1
December 2002

What Is Forensic Interviewing?

Forensic interviewing is a first step in most child protective services (CPS) investigations, one in which a professional interviews a child to find out if he or she has been maltreated. In addition to yielding the information needed to make a determination about whether abuse or neglect has occurred, this approach produces evidence that will stand up in court if the investigation leads to criminal prosecution. Properly conducted forensic interviews are legally sound in part because they ensure the interviewer’s objectivity, employ non-leading techniques, and emphasize careful documentation of the interview.

A fuller understanding of forensic interviewing and its role in child welfare can be gained by comparing it with social work interviewing, another type of interviewing commonly used by child welfare workers. The social work interview allows social workers to assess and identify a family’s strengths and needs and develop a service plan with the family. This broad, versatile approach incorporates the use of a variety of interviewing techniques. Social work interviewing is used at every step of child welfare, from intake through case closure; it is used with individuals and groups, children and adults.

Although it employs some of the same techniques as the social work interview, such as open-ended and forced choice questions, the forensic interview is much more focused. Generally it is used only during the assessment portion of a CPS investigation, and involves only the children who are the subject of the investigation.

Although of vital importance in investigations where it is likely substantiation will lead to criminal prosecution, such as cases of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, forensic interviews occur in virtually all CPS investigations. Mark Everson, an expert on forensic interviewing with the Child Forensic Evaluation Program, emphasizes that even in responding to reports of neglect, when workers begin exploring the allegations with a child, “they should approach this as a forensic interview, not as casual conversation.”

Why Are They Needed?

Because most perpetrators deny the abuse and most acts of maltreatment are not witnessed, the victim’s statement is critical evidence in child abuse cases. Yet developmental issues, such as children’s varying abilities to recall events and use language, as well as the trauma they may have experienced, complicate efforts to obtain information about the abuse. The forensic interview is designed to overcome these obstacles (HCCAC, 1999).

The goal of the forensic interview is to obtain a statement from a child in an objective, developmentally sensitive, and legally defensible manner (Davies, et al., 1997). To ensure facts are gathered in a way that will stand up in court, forensic interviews are carefully controlled: the interviewer’s statements and body language must be neutral, alternative explanations for a child’s statements are thoroughly explored, and the results of the interview are documented in such a way that they can bear judicial scrutiny.

Who, When, and Where

In North Carolina, the backgrounds and professions of the individuals who conduct forensic interviews vary from community to community, and from investigation to investigation. Sometimes they are conducted only by child welfare workers in the field; sometimes another, secondary forensic interview is conducted by a therapist or other specially-trained professional in a controlled, child-friendly environment.

Initial Interviews. In most North Carolina counties, initial forensic interviews are conducted by CPS investigators because state law (NCGS § 7B-302) requires that, once it accepts a report that a child has been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused, CPS must have immediate face-to-face contact with the child. During this meeting, which must occur within 24 hours after the report is made, child welfare workers assess risk and determine whether steps need to be taken to ensure the child’s immediate safety. Forensic interviewing can be quite useful at this juncture.

Child welfare workers often conduct these interviews in whatever private place they can find, such as their cars or empty classrooms. Although expedient, these “improvised” settings may not be ideal. Because a person’s ability to recall past events is significantly influenced by his or her surroundings, best practice in forensic interviewing—even if it occurs “in the field”—means identifying prior to the interview a location that is neutral, reassuring, and child-friendly.

The extent of initial forensic interviews by CPS workers can be influenced by a number of factors. These include the specific circumstances being investigated (for example, the child may need to be referred for a medical examination, which is often accompanied by a secondary forensic interview); the investigating DSS’s proximity to and ability to access forensic interviewing resources (such as child advocacy centers); the protocols and procedures adopted by each agency (since we have a state-supervised, county-administered child welfare system, each DSS sets its own policies regarding interagency collaboration and use of outside resources); and the worker’s skill and comfort level.

One of the objectives of forensic interviewing is to reduce the number of times children are interviewed. The concern is contamination of the child’s memory of the incident(s) being investigated. Research and clinical experience indicate that the more times a child—especially a young child—is interviewed about alleged abuse, the less reliable and legally defensible that child’s testimony may become (Sattler, 1998).

Lauren Flick, a psychologist who has conducted more than 3,000 child interviews, describes contamination this way: “If I am the first person to talk to a child about an event, that event is like a design on the bottom of swimming pool filled with clear water—it is easy to read. But each conversation this child has with someone about the alleged abuse clouds the water. If he has talked with his principal, parents, a police officer, etc., it can be very hard or impossible to discern the design at the bottom of the pool.”

Secondary Forensic Interviews. More in-depth forensic interviews sometimes occur after the initial stages of a CPS investigation. These are usually conducted by specially-trained psychologists or professionals with graduate-level education in the areas relevant to this type of interviewing. These interviews usually take place at centers that facilitate the interview process—therapists and doctors sometimes have such facilities, as do most providers of child medical evaluations. Child advocacy centers (CACs) can be excellent resources for forensic interviewing. CACs offer comfortable rooms with children’s furniture, toys, interviewing props, and other aids for observing and documenting interviews. (To learn more about CACs in North Carolina, click here.) Agencies should work with CACs and other secondary forensic interviewing resources to avoid harmful delays—some providers can schedule interviews within days, but others can take much longer.

Multidisciplinary Investigations

In North Carolina, as in other states, forensic interviews can be multidisci-plinary, meaning that more than one agency participates in or observes the interview. The two agencies most commonly involved in multidisciplinary investigations are DSS and law enforcement, but other frequent participants include representatives of mental health, the district attorney’s office, and others. Those in favor of multidisci-plinary investigations argue that they:

  • Reduce the number of child interviews, thereby reducing stress on the child. Repeatedly asking a child to relive abuse amounts to revictimization.

  • Improve evidence quality so that perpetrators can be held accountable for harming children and the public can be protected.

Close collaboration and joint investigation of serious child physical and sexual abuse by county DSS’s and law enforcement does occur in North Carolina, but because we have a state-supervised, county-administered system, the degree of collaboration varies from county to county.

Impact

Since the 1980s, child welfare systems have embraced the forensic interview because it promised to be a tool that would help them investigate reports of child maltreatment and keep children safe. What impact have forensic investigations had on child and family outcomes, and on the community as a whole?

Prosecution and conviction. Although punishment of child abusers is not a goal of child welfare—our focus is on children’s safety, well-being, and permanence, and on supporting families—many people do view conviction of offenders as a positive community outcome. Therefore, it is reasonable for us to ask: does forensic interviewing result in more prosecutions and convictions of child abusers?

Unfortunately, we don’t know. There are no national or state statistics that effectively track this phenomenon. This lack of information is primarily a result of the inability of child welfare and criminal justice systems to coordinate data they collect. Until they do, we will have no clear understanding of how forensic interviewing affects what happens to child abusers.

The information we do have suggests that less than half (42%) of substantiated child sexual abuse cases—cases likely to have used forensic interviewing—are forwarded for prosecution. “When prosecutions occur, the majority—about 75% in one study—result in convictions. However, most of these convictions (over 90%) result from guilty pleas and plea bargains . . . . Even when accused sex abusers are convicted, their sentences are not terribly stiff. Studies suggest that 32% to 46% of convicted child sexual abusers serve no jail time. Only 19% receive sentences longer than one year” (Finkelhor, 1994).

Reduction in child trauma. Traumatization can occur each time a child relates an abusive incident. This is why forensic interviewing, especially when done in a multidisciplinary way, is so appealing—it fits well both with our efforts to safeguard and enhance child well-being and with the social work code of ethics, which prohibits us from causing harm to our clients.

Conclusion

The forensic interview is a crucial tool in child welfare in North Carolina. Forensic interviewing is often the only way an agency can learn enough to make a fact-based determination of whether child abuse has occurred. Forensic interviewing can also yield information DSS needs to build a safety plan for the child and to support the child’s family.

Forensic interviewing is important for the way it brings child welfare agencies together with other community and state agencies. Because it is used so often in combination with a multidisciplinary response to child maltreatment, forensic interviewing helps professionals learn about each other’s roles and how the larger system serving families and children operates. It enables these professionals to see that, despite differences in their missions, human services and law enforcement agencies share two common goals: fostering healthier, safer relationships for children and preventing further exploitation and harm.

References for this and other articles in this issue