January 01, 2016

What is My Next Question? Four Common Interviewer Responses

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.

The last two CLP issues shared Scott Snider’s generally accepted child interview principles (Nov. 2015), and strategies for eliciting narrative details during child interviews (Dec. 2015). This issue builds on that discussion by highlighting common interviewer responses to children’s initial disclosures and how they can affect a child’s response.

Four responses are typical when a child provides an initial account of what happened in an interview for suspected maltreatment, according to Scott Snider, LCSW, clinical coordinator at the Duke Child Abuse and Neglect Medical Evaluation Clinic in Durham, NC. He used the following child’s account to show how these interviewer responses play out.

Child’s initial account: “Mom had to work, so we stayed home with Malik. He told my brother to play downstairs but my brother came and knocked on the door. That’s what made him stop. He was feeling me in my room.”

Interviewer response #1: Interviewer bases questions on the child’s account, but resorts to direct or yes/no questions to test their own hypothesis of what happened. 

Often the interviewer has a hypothesis and is testing it out: “Does mom always leave you with Malik when she works? Was he feeling on you with his hands or something else? You said he was ‘feeling on you.’ Did he feel on you with his private? Did he do something to your clothes when he was feeling on you?” 

Instead of asking, “You said he was feeling on you, tell me all about that,” the interviewer’s prompt: “Did he feel on you with his private?” tests his own hypothesis that Malik touched the child with his private and is highly suggestive.

Snider stressed using precise questions and tying questions to the interviewer’s goal. Asking: “Tell me all about your brother” will get the child to tell everything about his brother, but not necessarily what the interviewer needs to know. “Tell me about your brother playing downstairs” is more precise and narrows the child’s response.

Interviewer response #2: Interviewer completely ignores child’s account and asks questions that are strictly based on the interviewer’s role.

The interviewer wants to know exactly what he needs to know. He has a checklist and limited time. Instead of listening to the child, he asks only about what he wants to know: “Who was in the house with you? How long did she leave you with Malik? Did Malik threaten you not to tell? Did Malik touch your private part?”

Snider cautioned against this approach. “Think about what you would do if you revealed personal things to someone you didn’t know well and they completely ignored what you said and only asked things that mattered to them.” A good way to think about it, Snider explained, is that the child is giving the interviewer a gift.  Swatting that away and ignoring the child’s gift can quickly shut down a child. 

A better approach is to ask follow-up questions that build on the child’s initial account. For example: “You said this…tell me all about that.” This engages the child and helps her feel what she’s told you matters and that you have heard her.

Interviewer response #3: The “Tell Me About” (TMA) Rabbit Hole. The interviewer uses narrative questions but asks a series of “Tell me about” questions seeking details that stray from the child’s account and are not value added. 

The interviewer should focus on questions that matter, said Snider. These questions should get the child talking about their experience. Ancillary details (whether a shirt was cotton or polyester) often add nothing. Building on the case example above, Snider said the TMA rabbit hole might look like:

  • “You said Mom had to work. Tell me all about Mom working?” (Is information about the Mom’s work really important?)

  • “Tell me about mom’s work hours?” (Might be interesting to know in terms of the event’s frequency and whether it happened more than one time, but the child is going to tell you all about the Mom’s work and hours.)

  • “You mentioned your brother. Tell me all about him?” (Will yield any and everything about the brother, including information unrelated to the account. If you really want to know about how the mother’s boyfriend asked the brother to play downstairs, ask that. It might be a more value-added question.)

Interviewer response #4: Interviewer uses narrative questions based on the child’s account but questions are random and/or based on the interviewer’s professional role, resulting in a disorganized account.

Snider outlined several questions an interviewer might ask that could result in a disorganized account:  “You said he knocked on the door. Tell me all about him knocking on the door. You mentioned mom had to work. Tell me all about that. Tell more about him feeling on you. Tell more about your brother playing downstairs.”

“These questions are beautifully phrased but are asked in a random order that switches back and forth between the event, creating a likelihood that things are going to get confused quickly,” said Snider. Even if the interviewer uses narrative invitation questions, there’s no guarantee that will lead to an organized interview. Frequent subject changes (switching back and forth between time segments and statements) and disorganized questions leads to:

  • Risk of confusing child, interviewer, and audience

  • Risk of making child appear less credible

  • Risk of reducing interview quality and reliability among interviewers

To avoid a disorganized account, Snider 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.”

Stay tuned: Next month’s issue will outline tips advocates can use to craft an effective questioning strategy.


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. 


Claire Chiamulera is the editor of Child Law Practice.