February 01, 2016

Improving Question Frameworks in Child Interviews

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, CLP shared Scott Snider’s four common interviewer responses and how they play out during child interviews. This part shares a simple, chronological child questioning strategy to gather narrative details during child interviews.

In the last part of this article, Scott Snider, LCSW, clinical coordinator at the Duke Child Abuse and Neglect Medical Evaluation Clinic in Durham, NC, stressed keeping the interview approach simple and focusing on the child’s chronology. He illustrated with this example:

Interviewer: “Tell me about what happened from beginning to end?”

Child: “We went to grandma’s house. Me and Tekisha wanted some food so we asked poppy for $5. Junior said he had money upstairs. He took us upstairs and said if you want something you gotta give me something. We didn’t want to but he said ‘let me see.’ Tekisha let him see hers. He just felt on me. We left downstairs and momma drove us to the store to get something to eat.”

Snider followed up with these tips for organizing a simple, chronological questioning strategy:

Use the child’s initial narrative account to structure questions, moving systematically from beginning to end. The child has mapped out what happened. Avoid taking that initial account and switching it up – e.g., starting in the middle or the end and moving back to the beginning. 

Engage the child by asking for help. Children, especially young children, want to help. Teens want respect; they don’t want to be told what happened. Asking the child to help you make sure you have the information right shows respect and engages them. Building on the case above, the interviewer could say: “Let’s start at the beginning to make sure I get everything right.” 

Move through the child’s chronology, focusing questions on events in the order the child described. For example:

Interviewer: “You said first that you went to grandma’s house. Tell me all about that.” 

Child: “Well we always go to grandma’s house on Sundays after church. So we went to grandma’s house after church and I was hungry. That’s why I asked for $5.”

The exchange yields context and new details. Now the interviewer knows the incident happened on a Sunday, a valuable piece of information.

The interviewer then moves on to the next event: “Then you said that Junior had money upstairs. Help me understand that.” This focuses the child on giving more information about going upstairs.

Avoid moving directly to the abusive act. Starting with questions about the abuse may: 

  • fail to clarify contextual details and miss unknown information, 

  • risk losing track of details the child has not provided (contextual and corroborative details need to make the case), 

  • risk increased avoidance through questions that produce reluctance or anxiety.

A good way to think about the interview structure is like a snowball. Start at top of hill and push the snowball to get momentum. In the process the interviewer will get a lot of context. By the time the interviewer gets to the abuse, the child is ready to talk.

The exception is if the child wants to move directly to the abuse. This tends to occur with teens who want “to get to the point” and are less patient with "Tell Me About" questions seeking contextual clues. The key is to be child-centered and flexible.

Avoid stopping at the abuse event. Push through the child’s narrative and ask what happened after the event (seek corroborative and contextual details). 

Don’t leave an emotion on the table. Include emotional, psychological, and physical experience questions, such as:

  • How did you feel when ___?
  • What did you think about when ___?
  • How did your body feel when ___?

The follow-up responses should then seek more details. For example, if the child reveals that “it hurt,” the interviewer would ask, “Tell me about it hurting.” Usually the child’s response provides contextual details.

Taking a child interview to the next level once the child gives an initial account is easier with a strategy. Using Snider’s tips can help shape that strategy, avoid common pitfalls, and ensure interviews are structured to help the child give quality information to help in the case.

—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. 

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.