Interviewing Child Clients
Amy Freedman practices with the Law Offices of W. Kelvin Wyrick in Texarkana, Arkansas, and has been a certified Attorney Ad Litem representing children who have been taken into foster care because of abuse and neglect and children in private custody, divorce, and guardianship cases. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Representing children in court proceedings is a tricky area of law, and knowing the proper way to interview child clients is key. If you have a definite interest in representing children, consult state and federal guidelines and your jurisdiction for in-depth CLE courses, which may focus on child psychology, sociology, and the juvenile court system. The following is a quick reference guide for lawyers on how to interview or question child clients.
The most common mistake attorneys make when interviewing child clients is interviewing them in the same manner as they would adults. It may seem obvious, but it is important to always remember that children do not have the level of experience, the judgment capacity, or the intuition that the average adult has. Therefore, attorneys must use great care when interviewing or questioning a child client. Using the following checklist will help:
- Establish a rapport with the child by clearly and simply identifying who you are and why you are talking with the child. For example, you could say, “The judge asks me to get to know boys and girls sometimes. Is it OK if we just talk a little right now?”
- Keep your questions and sentences simple with only one main thought per sentence.
- Avoid legalese. An easy way to remember this rule is to remind yourself to never use a word when questioning a child that cannot be clearly explained. For example, avoid words such as allegation, appear, attorney, counsel, defendant, evidence, hearing, jury, minor, motion, oath, parties, perpetrator, and prosecutor.
- Do not assume that because a child uses a word he or she understands its meaning.
- Remember that children can be extremely literal in their interpretation of language.
- Remember to frame your questions in terms of a child’s experience.
- Be alert for possible miscommunication. If a child’s answer seems inconsistent with prior answers or doesn’t make sense, look for a possible problem (1) in the way the question was phrased or ordered, (2) with a literal interpretation on the part of the child, or (3) with assumptions contained in the question about the child’s linguistic/cognitive development or knowledge of the adult world.
- Keep your questioning to a reasonable time table. Children tire of questioning easily, and it can be psychologically harmful for a child to be questioned repeatedly with no breaks or end in sight.
You, as an attorney, have a heavy responsibility in dealing with a child. The gravity of your responsibility is illustrated in research that indicates repeated and inappropriate questioning of children in child sexual abuse cases often results in contaminated testimonial evidence. Further, improper questioning of a child sexual abuse victim can be extremely psychologically damaging because the child may be forced to relive the abuse over and over for each questioner. Thus, it is extremely important that you have proper training and take special care in questioning a child in this context.
“Appendix A: Checklist for Interviewing/Questioning Children” by Anne Graffam Walker, PhD, published in Handbook on Questioning Children: A Linguistic Perspective, 2nd Edition, 1999 by Anne Graffam Walker, Ph.D, published by the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. Copyright © 1999 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission.
• Handbook on Questioning Children: A Linguistic Perspective, 2nd Ed. 1999. PC # 5490271. Center on Children and the Law and Young Lawyers Division.