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How to interview a child of abuse

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Dear LA Teacher,

I have six weeks to prepare for a trial in which my client, an eight-year-old girl, was sexually assaulted by her uncle. I need to make sure I interview the child in a way that doesn’t induce trauma and provides an environment that promotes positive disclosure. As a teacher, perhaps you have some insight.

Respectively,
LA Lawyer

Dear LA Lawyer,

It’s wise of you to research this problem because when interviewing a child, who is a victim of abuse, the interviewer must be tactful to avoid coercing the child’s testimony. The legal system has the responsibility to avoid erroneous allegations.

Attorney Mary Sawicki, Senior Attorney at the National District Attorneys Association’s National Center for Prosecution in Alexandria, Virginia advises interviewers to prepare extensively prior to the interview. The interviewer needs to be updated on child development issues, including memory, moral, and cognitive development.

Koren Thal, a recent graduate of Suffolk University Law School in Boston says, “Make sure your questions are age appropriate and that you explain the legal system in a way the child will understand. Make sure you don’t coerce the child’s disclosure by playing into her need for your approval.”

Sawicki says, “It’s a gradual process preparing a child for trial. First you need to build rapport with the child. Develop a relationship with your child client so she learns to trust you.”

The child may ask, “Will Uncle Petey go to jail?”

Thal says, “Be honest with the child, but bring the conversation back to her. You can say, ‘I don’t know right now, but we are here to talk about you, today.’”

The next step is determining competency. Here’s where you test the child’s special awareness by discussing locations of objects—is the paperclip on top of the can or to its left? Thal says, “This step is crucial to understanding the child’s later disclosure.” If for example the child says, “The paper clip is on the can,” when it is actually to its left, then it will shed light on a later disclosure that reports that “Uncle Petey laid on top of me in the bed.”

Sawicki points out that at this stage of the interview it’s important to assess the child’s ability to understand the difference between a lie and the truth. According to the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, if an interviewer includes questions in the truth-lie discussion about the moral consequences of lying, the child will more accurately report what happened.

“The next area you want to cover is your child’s background,” says Thal. Ask questions about her friends, family, and school experiences. This is necessary to establish a foundation to ask more personal questions about the alleged abuse.

To ascertain the facts about the abuse, ask open-ended questions in a non-suggestive tone. According to Sawicki, these types of questions provide the most reliable information about the abuse. Research shows that freely recalled information is more likely to be accurate than information obtained in yes-no responses.

You want your child to speak freely and openly. Make sure she is comfortable when telling her story. Also make sure you know her terminology. If she says, “Petey touched my flower,” you don’t want to confuse or embarrass her by using medically correct terms.

Interviewing a child of abuse should be a tactful and nurturing process. Provide age appropriate questions and perhaps bring in a therapy dog to ease the child’s nerves.

Good luck,
LA Teacher

Learn more about LA Teacher on his website.

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