Sexual Abuse Unit 4 Interviewing Children
A. Interviewing sexually abused children and adolescents
The main goals for interviewing children and adolescents as part of sexual abuse investigations is to ascertain whether the abuse indeed did occur and whether the alleged victim is in need of protection. Because of trauma associated with child sexual abuse, it is essential that professionals who interview the alleged victims have special skills and take certain factors into consideration. To avoid adding to the victim's trauma, limiting the number of people interviewing the child/adolescent or the number of times s/he has to be interviewed is one of these factors. One option is for one person to interview the alleged victims while other individuals are behind a one way mirror. Besides seeing and hearing everything said, they can communicate with the interviewer as needed. Another option is to have two members of a multidisciplinary team interviewing the child/adolescent at the same time. Audio-taping or videotaping the interview are other alternatives for reducing the number of times the victims have to be interviewed. Another factor is interviewing the alleged victim in a place where s/he feels safe and comfortable. A number of child protection offices have interview rooms with children's furniture, toys, etc. In most cases, interviews are conducted as soon as reports of sexual abuse are received by child protection agencies and before the parent(s)/caretaker(s) are interviewed. They are also interviewed separately from other family members. However, if a young child feels more comfortable talking about the abuse with a counselor or a person who reported the abuse present, that is accommodated (Faller, 1993; Kinnear, 1995).
Sexually abused children and adolescents are often fearful. Developing rapport with them and making an effort to make them feel at ease is an important aspect of the interview. Regarding questioning, open-ended questions are encouraged, e.g., tell me what happened. However, directive questions may also be used for children under age 6, care is usually taken to avoid influencing their answers (suggestibility). These children's attention span, language skills, memory, and ability to distinguish reality from fantasy have to be assessed. Anatomically correct dolls, drawings of male and female figures and other visual aids are often used to see if the children can identify specific parts, to know names used for specified parts, and to demonstrate sexual abuse acts if they have difficulty describing them verbally.
According to Kathleen C. Faller (1990), assessment of the alleged victim's statements and expressed feelings or reactions enables the interviewer(s) or team to determine the likelihood that sexual abuse has occurred. The assessment entails:
- The alleged victim's ability to describe or demonstrate specific sexual acts.
- A child/adolescent's ability to clearly state the context of the sexual abuse. This includes when the sexual acts occurred, where they occurred, what the perpetrator said, what the victim was wearing or what was put off, where other family members were at the time, etc.
- The alleged victim's affect when describing the sexual abuse acts.
As part of the interview, expressed feelings of fear or anxiety (if any) may be addressed. For more information, visit Kathleen Coulborn Faller's manual on Child Sexual Abuse (1993) available at http://nccanch.acf.hhs.gov/pubs/usermanuals/sexabuse/index.cfm.