December 01, 2015

Eliciting Narrative Details in Child Interviews (part 2)

Claire Chiamulera

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Last month’s CLP shared Scott Snider’s tips from a recent webinar* on generally accepted child interviewing principles. This part builds on that information and shares basic strategies for eliciting narrative details during child interviews.

While interviewers are encouraged to use narrative questions to elicit information from a child about an incident, there is little guidance or consistency about how to organize questions in response to the initial narrative account, said Snider, Scott Snider, LCSW, clinical coordinator at the Duke Child Abuse and Neglect Medical Evaluation Clinic in Durham, NC. “The child tells you things, but what do you say next? How do you organize questions in response to the initial narrative account?”

Eliciting narrative details about a single incident is generally easier to deal with and children’s single-event memories tend to be rich in detail, said Snider. He added that episodic recall of specific events, rather than a general account, is generally preferred by professionals (district attorneys, police, child welfare workers) because they are looking for specific details. 

To illustrate, Snider shared a sample interview with a teen client: 

A 10-year-old boy says his mom’s boyfriend did something bad to him one time. 

Interviewer: “Tell me everything that happened from beginning to end.” 

Boy: “We were watching TV and he put in a movie. I wanted to watch wrestling but he said ‘no.’ His movie had nasty stuff on it. He started saying things. He was acting funny because he was drunk again. Then he started touching. Mom came home and he stopped.”

The question for the interviewer is: “Where do we go from here?” said Snider. “The interviewer must determine in the moment: What do you know? What else do you need to know? What is your next question? So many things are going on in the interviewer’s head while engaging with the child, but there are strategies to simplify the interview process,” he said.

Questioning strategy

Determine what information is known. In this case, the interviewer knows:

  • The boyfriend put in movie. 
  • He was drunk again.
  • It stopped when mom came home. 
  • The movie had nasty stuff on it. 

The boyfriend started touching the boy.

Determine what information to clarify. From one single prompt, “Tell me what happened from start to end,” the child gave five details (a great response), but there’s still work to do to clarify the child’s account, said Snider. A lot of information is still missing (e.g., What kind of movie? What “drunk again” means.) What questions need to be asked based on the child’s response? Where should the interviewer start? 

Use the child’s exact words when framing questions. Snider stressed sticking to what the child tells the interviewer and using the child’s exact words. A common mistake is to make assumptions about what happened (e.g., assuming the boyfriend touched the child’s private part) and inadvertently introduce errors into the interview. The follow-up questions should allow the child to clarify the account.

Consider your role when asking questions. Snider explained the role of the interviewer often affects how questions are structured. For example, DSS workers are likely to be interested in the mom’s response (what she knew/didn’t know, how she responded) because their role is to protect the child and put a safety plan in place. In contrast, a police investigator, who is trying to gather corroborative evidence to meet the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, will be interested in what the movie was, where the movie came from, what the movie looked like, where the movie was kept, and what the move was played on. 

Stay tuned: Next month’s issue will share four common interviewer responses to avoid in child interviews. 

Claire Chiamulera, CLP Editor

*This four-part article is based on the webinar, What is My Next Question? Improving Question Frameworks in Child Interviews, hosted by the Missing and Exploited Children Training & Technical Assistance Program with support from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.