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November 01, 2015

Improving Question Frameworks in Child Interviews (Pt 1)

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.

Accepted child interview protocols make it easier to question children about suspected maltreatment. What do you do when the child starts talking? How do you respond to dig deeper into the child’s account? What is your next question? 

Strategies to improve and build on child interviews and methods to respond to children’s initial disclosures about maltreatment were the focus of a webinar by Scott Snider, LCSW, a clinical coordinator at the Duke Child Abuse and Neglect Medical Evaluation Clinic in Durham, NC. Snider has over 20 years’ experience conducting diagnostic interviews of children and training professionals in child interviewing. 

“Good protocols exist,” said Snider as he framed the presentation. “We have good guidance on using narrative event practice (NEP) with kids. We know a lot about talking with kids. Regardless of the interview protocol used, how do interviewers respond once a child starts giving narrative responses to questions? How do you build on current best practice to improve the quality of children’s responses even more?” he asked.

Child Interviewing Principles

The knowledge base relating to forensic child interviews has grown over the past few decades with several generally accepted principles and practices. Snider reviewed several of these as background before discussing how to respond to children’s narrative accounts during interviews:

Open-ended questions are recommended. Kathleen Faller, PhD, an expert in child interviewing and child maltreatment, along with other experts, recommends using open-ended questions because they provide more detailed and accurate responses. (Open-ended: What animals did you see at the zoo? Closed: Did you go to the zoo?)

Children’s language differs from adults.' Linguist Anne Graffam-Walker, PhD, and Julie Kenniston, MSW, LSW, in the Handbook on Questioning Children (2013), informed the field about how children talk and how children’s language differs from adults.’ They offer valuable guidance on the role of language in child interviews and using narrative event practice with children in the legal context.

Narrative invitation questions are recommended. Many children (age 5+) can give narrative accounts of their experiences when asked narrative invitational questions (e.g., “Tell me about your morning from beginning to end.”) 

Children tend to answer precisely what is asked. Children follow interviewers’ cues and try hard to understand questions and answer precisely what is asked. For example: 

An interviewer working with a teen girl asked, “Did a different person touch your chest?” 

The teen answered, “No.” 

After the interview, the teen told a medical provider that “a different person touched my butt.” 

The first interviewer didn’t ask about other touching so the teen answered exactly and precisely what was asked. The medical provider later opened up a better question that revealed different information.

Interview prompts reveal different information. Once a child makes a disclosure (“Yes, something happened to me.”), interview protocols typically encourage a “What happened?” or “Tell me about…” prompt. These prompts can elicit different kinds of information. For example, with a “Tell me about that” prompt, the interviewer will get what the child thought was important, not necessarily the information the interviewer seeks.  In contrast, saying: “Tell me everything that happened from beginning to end” cues the child to give a chronology of what happened, which tends to provide richer details and a fuller account. 

Stay tuned:

  • Pt. 2: Eliciting Narrative Details in Child Interviews (Dec. 2015)

  • Pt. 3: Four Common Interviewer Responses to Avoid (Jan. 2016)

  • Pt. 4: Crafting a Simple, Chronological Child Questioning Strategy (Feb. 2016)

Learn More:

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.