When interviewing a vulnerable person to find out if he or she has been maltreated, the police and social services must take special care not to alarm the person while gathering all the important information. This can be done with the help of a forensic interview. Minors should always be interviewed using child forensic techniques, but the process can also support the elderly, domestic abuse victims, those with mental health or developmental issues and other vulnerable adults.
A forensic interview is a structured conversation that is designed to obtain information from a child or vulnerable adult about an event he or she may have experienced in an objective, sensitive and legally defensible way.
When children or vulnerable adults experience abuse or neglect, they may not understand what has happened to them or be able to communicate effectively. In such situations, the police and Child Protective Services use a special interview technique to obtain the relevant information. Forensic interviews are handled sensitively to protect the well-being of the vulnerable person. They also follow a structured framework to ensure the interviewer's objectivity, so the evidence given will stand up in court if the investigation leads to a criminal prosecution.
Because most incidents of abuse and neglect are not witnessed, the vulnerable person's evidence is critical for securing the perpetrator's conviction. Obtaining such evidence is difficult, however, since vulnerable adults and children can struggle to use precise language and recall important events. These difficulties are complicated by the trauma the vulnerable person may have experienced because of the abuse. A forensic interview is designed to overcome these obstacles. A key aim is to reduce the number of times the child or vulnerable adult is questioned since research suggests that the more often the person is interviewed, the less reliable their testimony becomes.
A forensic interview is best understood as a structured conversation that is based on the interviewee's level of cognitive development and communication skills. The interviewer may use toys and props with a very young child and open-ended questions with an older child or adult. Within that framework, the interviewer follows one of the recognized forensic interview protocols, which differ in the amount of structure each provides. The NICHD protocol, for example, is highly structured and provides a series of scripted questions for interviewers to follow when conducting a child forensic interview. The CAC interview provided by National Children's Advocacy Center is only semistructured and recommends topics for discussion, rather than a precise script.
Generally, you can expect a forensic interview to start with rapport building, where the interviewer makes the vulnerable person feel comfortable and establishes the ground rules for the conversation. The interviewee is assessed to gauge whether he understands the difference between the truth and a lie. In the substantive phase of the interview, the interviewer talks with the child using suggestive prompts to bring the child around to the subject of interest. If the child makes a disclosure, the interviewer follows up with a series of open-ended questions that allow the child's free recall of the situation with minimal interruption or comment. The interviewer may used closed questions such as: "Were you in the kitchen or in the bedroom when he touched you?" to clarify any ambiguous statements. Throughout the interview, it's important that the interviewer's words and body language remain neutral so they do not lead the child.
Forensic interviews are conducted by psychologists, child welfare workers, trained therapists or other specially trained professionals within the police department or Child Protective Services, although this varies from state to state and from investigation to investigation. Interviews typically take place in a neutral and controlled environment like a therapist's office. In emergency situations, the interview may take place in an improvised setting, such as a classroom or a vehicle. This can happen, for example, if CPS needs to make an urgent decision about the safety of a child.