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First, do no harm: Effectively interviewing children

With few exceptions, cops get a lot of practice talking to adults. We interview witnesses, we interrogate suspects. Those who’ve been around the block more than a few times figure out what approach and techniques work best for them on the street or in the interview room, and they adjust accordingly. A few have “the gift,” and are renowned for their ability to gently put a hammer and nails in the hands of a scumbag, and then guide him in the construction of his own coffin. Sometimes we even give them nicknames: “the Priest” (everyone confesses to him), “Butter” (as in “butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth”) and the like.

But take the most seasoned interviewer with a tremendous felony closure rate, stick them in a room with a five-year-old victim of ongoing sexual assault, and the interview can go to hell in a handbasket in a New York minute if the interviewer hasn’t had specialized training in interviewing children.

It’s just not the same.

The CornerHouse RATAC Protocol
One of the realities of our profession is interacting with children. Whether they are victims, witnesses, or bystanders, their credible participation can often be illusive, confusing, misunderstood or, at the very worst, ignored. I recently participated in a training program designed to increase basic investigative skills and procedures when investigating reports of child sexual and physical abuse. It has led me to see how the techniques taught there can be effectively applied to any circumstances when we deal with children.

ChildFirst training is a teaching curriculum where students are taught the forensic interviewing protocol RATAC (Rapport, Anatomy Identification, Touch Inquiry, Abuse Scenario, and Closure).

The intensive five-day course is provided by the National Child Protection Training Center and CornerHouse, a nonprofit interagency child abuse evaluation and training center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The training is designed for law enforcement officers, child protective service workers, prosecutors, and forensic interviewers. Forensic interviewing has been found to be very defendable in court proceedings around the nation. It is a neutral, fact-finding approach that enables the child to provide the needed details of abuse, thus assisting investigators in their search for further evidence.

Specifically, CornerHouse RATAC Protocol, which “instructs the interviewer to ask non-leading questions, to use terms children would understand, and to progress quickly since young children have short attention spans,” has been recognized and approved by a number of appellate courts.

The temptation would be to say that this type of training is only valuable to those directly involved in child protective services or those routinely investigating reports of child sexual and/or physical abuse. But the skills and techniques taught in this course can be applied to any case where a child is a witness, or to any situation where law enforcement would talk or engage with a child.

Basics include making a child feel comfortable and safe before any question is asked (gaining their trust); letting them know the interview is being recorded; asking age-appropriate questions; and avoiding misleading or suggestive questions that may ultimately contaminate and render useless the information needed.

Interviewing children became a national focus in 1984, with the “McMartin Preschool Case” in Manhattan Beach, California. In that case, several day care employees were accused of sexual abuse and bizarre rituals of animal sacrifice, resulting in over 80 charges.

It turned into a cluster of epic proportions, and the ramifications changed the way children are interviewed throughout the nation. Of 80 counts against those employees, there were zero convictions. Examining the videotaped interviews of the children from this case (including interviews by psychiatrists and counselors) revealed troubling aspects of the investigation.

Children were interviewed repeatedly, and often rewarded for giving what was considered “the right answer.” They were repeatedly asked the same question, thereby implying (in the child’s mind at least) that the answer the child had previously given was not the answer the adult questioner wanted to hear. Some children were asked if they had said a particular thing in the past, and further questioned whether or not it was true.

While such questioning tactics might be effective with an adult suspect, it is counter-productive with children, as it can lead them to begin to guess and try to conform to what they think the interviewer wants to hear. Often the children changed what they said. Sometimes the questioners provided details with which the child victims were asked to agree, or corroborate.

In the McMartin case, jurors specifically said the reasons they dismissed much of the children’s testimony was because it was “adult influenced,” or did not remain consistent. As we know, witness statements can be suppressed if they are not obtained in an appropriate manner, or are the result of inappropriate questions.

If children are not influenced by threat, reward or adult “leading,” they tend to tell the truth. Research has shown that children do not lie simply as a matter of course, particularly about sexual abuse. But suggestibility and complicated questioning can cause children to say things that may cause adults to deem their answers inaccurate or untruthful.

Upon completion of this training, it was apparent that many a child’s honest testimony could be thrown out or deemed inadmissible by virtue of how that testimony was obtained. What has been determined since McMartin (and cases similar to it) is questions, particularly to young children, should be simple and concrete. Complex or compound questions can confuse a child, with negative results. Such questions often solicit a response from a child that makes them sound as if they don’t know what they are talking about, as the child may respond to only one part or detail of the question, and exclude others.

“What did he look like?” or “What were you and Uncle John wearing?” are too abstract and open-ended for young children. Suggestive questions such as, “Did the man have red hair?” may cause children under the age of 11 to answer in the affirmative because they often want to please the questioner. At certain ages, children can answer “what,” but not “where” or “when.” To children under 10, the time concept of “a week” or “an hour” is likely not developed. The use of the small word “if” can throw a major monkey wrench when questioning a child, as it sets up either scenarios of a far-reaching or fantasy scope, or it presents such a suggestive thought process they could choose to not answer at all. Through proper questioning techniques, information that often sounds “off base” can be made clear.

Smaller jurisdictions may not have immediate access to specialized personnel to investigate matters that concern children; there may only be the responding officer to ask essential questions. Someone - perhaps you – will have to make the decision as to how to obtain and record a child’s accurate and truthful testimony, and take responsibility for doing so effectively in a manner that does no further harm to the child.

To learn more about this subject, and find trainings that are close to you, I highly recommend you check out the websites posted in the related resources area above and to the left.

Rob Hall began his law enforcement career in 1994 as a volunteer for the Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Office. Hired by the S.O. on January 1, 1995, he was fewer than five months into his career as a cop and just five blocks away from the Murrah Building when it was blown up at 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995. That incident defined many things for the rest of his life, including his dedication to law enforcement. In the years that followed, Hall has served as a Patrol Deputy, Drug Investigator (including a four-month stint in deep cover), Homicide Investigator of capital murder cases, Investigations Supervisor, Assistant Chief, and Chief of Police.