Beginning as far back as the 1980’s, false allegations of sexual abuse involving children under the age of 12 have spiraled into a nationwide epidemic. Numerous families have been destroyed as a result and countless innocent men and women have been incarcerated.
In 1989 Ralph Underwager and Hollida Wakefield of the Institute for Psychological Therapy conducted a study titled “Techniques for Interviewing Children in Sexual Abuse Cases” and the conclusion was astounding. The study showed that among adjudicated cases of alleged sexual misconduct involving a child (namely in acrimonious divorce or custody disputes) as many as 77% of those cases were found to be unfounded or unsubstantiated. In 2011, The Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis published a study describing “four board categories of improper (forensic) interview techniques” despite thorough proof these techniques often have the tendency to illicit incorrect or misleading statements from suspected child sexual abuse subjects, they are still being employed by forensic interviewers today. The conclusion of the study showed as many as 33% of the responses to questions about inappropriate conduct were answered inaccurately. So prolific have cases like this become that researchers have now outlined a specific method for uncovering the suggestiveness of a forensic interview. The S.I.R.R. test includes evaluating the interview for suggestive(S) or repeated questioning, influence (I) from a third party, reinforcement (R) of suspected responses and, removal (R) from direct experience or simply inviting the child to speculate what may have happened. So what exactly do these issues mean and how do they effect an interview? Here’s how:
Suggestive or repeated questioning is often indicated when new and novel information is introduced into the conversation by the forensic interviewer. If done correctly, the only information brought into the interview would be presented by the one being interviewed and not the interviewer. The main goal is to avoid the possibility of the child simply giving a story to make the authority figures happy. It is widely known that when children are questioned by an adult, the adult already knows the correct answer and is simply testing the child. Over time, children learn to adapt and come to realize this and in response, learn to shape their answers in such a way as to say what they think the adult wants to hear. There are numerous recorded interviews where the interviewer boldly applies the use of peer pressure as well. For example, take the infamous McMartin preschool case where the interviewer tells the children they are interviewing, “the other children are saying...what do you have to say?” Combine this suggestive and leading tactic with reinforcement, punishment, or by exhibiting body language cues depending on what the child says and the “acceptable” answers are clearly made obvious; the forensic interview doesn’t necessarily have to outright tell the child what to say. However, if these techniques fail to achieve the “expected” story, the interviewer could then invite the child to “use their imagination to figure out what may have happened”. This removal from direct experience allows for anything the child could think of to be misinterpreted and applied as actual experience. Even more disturbing is the use of anatomically correct dolls which blatantly communicate to the child, without words, that the interviewer wants to talk about body parts and touching. Although these techniques are useful in therapeutic settings to employ emotional healing and closure, a stricter guideline must be enacted in a forensic setting. When a persons freedom and livelihood hang in the balance, we are required by law to be absolutely certain “beyond a reasonable doubt”. This rule was passed to ensure that not only are the guilt punished for their crimes, but that the innocent are not wrongly imprisoned. So, the question now comes down to: How do we correct this problem so forensic interviews can be conducted properly and prevent false accusations of sexual abuse while revealing the untainted truth?
Luckily, this question was posed and addressed in 2007 by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). Leading experts in the fields of forensic interviewing and child psychology came together and as a direct result of extensive research and analysis, they created what is known as “The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Protocol: Interview Guide”. Through controlled studies, it has been repeatedly shown that the quality of interviewing reliability dramatically increased when forensic interviewers employed the NICHD protocol. To date, no other technique has been proven to be as effective. So, what does this procedure entail that makes it work so accurately? First and foremost, emphasis is placed on the frequent and continued use of open-ended and non-leading prompts that encourage a free narrative.
One must completely understand that the more information that comes directly from the child being interviewed, the far less chance there is for inconsistencies or inaccuracies to ever develop. Ideally, all the information should only come from the one being interviewed, not from the interviewer. Also of great importance is the absence of a “cluttered environment”. This allows the child to feel safe and unpressured while also avoiding any disruptions or distractions such as toys and books that may shift the child’s focus away from the central topic of the interview.
Of even more additional importance is the means of keeping the number of interviews to a minimum. This helps to reduce the chances that an improper technique could be used by an untrained or biased forensic interviewer.
As the number of civil lawsuits and innocent people incarcerated continues to rise as a direct result of improper forensic interviewing techniques, the time has come where we must act and demand that all facilities and forensic interviewers employ the use of the NICHD Protocol: Interview Guide by law.
How many more innocent people and families will be destroyed until a change is made? It’s time to speak up and make a difference.
- Blush & Ross; Sexual Allegations in Divorce: The S.A.I.D. Sydrome, 1986
- Wakefield, H.,Underwager, R.; Techniques for Interviewing Children in Sexual Abuse Cases, 1989
- Adams, J.K.; Interviewing Methods & Hearsay Testimony in Suspected Child Sexual Abuse Cases: Questions of Accuracy, 1997
- Esplin, Lamb, Sternberg; Conducting Investigative Interviews of Alleged Sexual Abuse Victims, 1998
- Garven, S.; The Effect of Interviewing Techniques from the McMartin Preschool Case, 1998
- Garven, S., Wood, J.; How Sexual Abuse Interviews Go Astray: Implications for Prosecutors, Police, and Child Protection Services, 2000
- Ceci, Friedman; The Suggestibility of Children: Scientific Research & Legal Implications, 2000
- Wakefield, H.; Guidelines on Investigatory Interviewing of Children: What is the Consensus in the Scientific Community, 2006
- Castelli, Goodman, Meyer, Qinquas, Redlich, Rogers; Hearsay Versus Children’s Testimony: Effects of Truthful and Deceptive Statements on Jurors Decisions, 2006
- Lamb, M.; The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Protocol: Interview Guide, 2007
- Lamb, M.; Structured Forensic Interview Protocols Improve the Quality and Informativeness of Investigative Interviews with Children, 2007
- Boyle, Compton, Kondash, Sparling, Wilder; Effects of Interviewer Behavior on Accuracy of Children’s Responses, 2011