The Age of Suggestibility: Can the Courts Trust a Child's Forensic Interview?

Whenever a child is suspected to suffer from child abuse and neglect it is essential to obtain information from the child that could be helpful for the investigation, asses the safety of the child’s living arrangements, and to assess the need for medical treatment or psychological care. Child Forensic Interviewers are responsible for these interviews to determine if a child is a victim of maltreatment. Extensive research has been conducted on forensic interviewing protocols, however limited research has looked at the actual interview procedure. What type of information do child forensic interviews find helpful? Does pre-interview information help these interviews? How much information should child forensic interviewers have?

Fessinger and McAuliff (2020) investigated these questions in “A National Survey of Child Forensic Interviewers: Implication for Research, Practice, and Law.” Fessinger and McAuliff (2020) surveyed actual child forensic interviewers from across the country. Overall, the interviewers believed their interviews were good – neutral, accurate, complete, and only slightly leading.

In terms of information, interviewers generally wanted quite a bit of information going into the interview. Although some interviewers thought it was better to not have very much information, some wanted as much information as they could get. When asked to list the types of information they wanted, interviewers on average wanted 7 types of information. However, the types of information were not consistent across interviewers. When asked to identify the information they wanted from a list, interviewers wanted 12 types of information and had much more agreement about the types. Almost all wanted information about the alleged abuse, the child’s characteristics, and the context of the child’s disclosure of the abuse.

Fessinger and McAuliff (2020) compared between interviewers who were concerned about false denials and those who were concerned about false allegations. Interviewers were overwhelmingly more concerned about children falsely denying abuse than falsely alleging abuse. Those who were concerned about false denials wanted more information and had less experience with forensic interviews. This is especially concerning, because having more pre-interview information makes it more likely that an interviewer will bias the child’s responses, intentionally or unintentionally. Interviewers with more information are more likely to have preexisting expectations, which can lead to questioning children in a way that confirms their expectations. So having less information should be preferable in order to ensure accurate interviews.

These findings provide a new understanding of the actual process of child forensic interviewing. However, they also raise substantial concerns about the interviewing process. First of all, significantly more interviewers are concerned about false denials than false accusations. From a justice perspective, arguably interviewers should be more concerned about false accusations. Secondly, interviewers wanted quite a bit of information, which is particularly frightening because of the likelihood that information can lead to confirmation bias. Taken together, these concerns suggest that child forensic interviewers think children are likely to deny an allegation, so they collect a lot of information that can lead them to ask questions that confirm that the abuse occurred. This raises serious questions about whether child forensic interviewers are impartial. And leads to the question: should courts accept evidence from child forensic interviews? Hopefully, this research will result in a better understanding of the child forensic interview process and will lead to better training. Improving the interview process will not only help children who might be victims of maltreatment, abuse, or neglect but also protect alleged perpetrators from wrongful allegations.

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