• Chris Zachar

What is a Child Forensic Interview?


Many children who accuse someone of physical or sexual abuse are taken in for a forensic interview. People hear this term and assume that because the word ‘forensic’ appears in the title, that the process is scientific. But that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.


It’s standard practice for law enforcement or child protective services workers to take a child in for such an interview any time there is an allegation of abuse against a child. The purpose is twofold: first to document the allegations in a purportedly neutral manner, and second, to create a video statement that can be played to a jury while minimizing the trauma of forcing a child to relive an assault. But like many techniques developed for the legal system, there is a significant gap between the intended purpose and how many forensic interviews are actually conducted.


Who conducts a child forensic interview and what are their qualifications?


Child forensic interviews are typically conducted by a social worker who has taken a course in interviewing children. A standard forensic interviewing course lasts three to five days and covers a variety of topics from pregnancy counseling to testifying in court.

Many child sexual assault investigations are limited to the accusation alone, which means that the child’s statement is the only evidence that the State presents in a sexual assault investigation. For this reason, the ideal interviewer should be a neutral party without an ongoing role in any criminal or social services investigation. The interviewer should not feel any stake in the outcome of an investigation. This allows the interviewer to play their role objectively, ideally preserving the statements of child victims while also protecting falsely accused suspects against unbelievable allegations. However, child protective social workers and even sensitive crimes detectives often insist on a role in the forensic interview, sometimes conducting it themselves. In most cases, the investigators will watch from a camera or two-way mirror and offer real-time suggestions to the interviewer.


What is the process of a forensic interview?


Protocols for interviewing children vary across the State. Interviewers tend to use either the Stepwise or Cognitive Graphic Interviewing (CGI) models in southwestern Wisconsin. While there are minor differences, the structure of a forensic interview remains essentially the same.


PHASE 1: Rapport building

This is exactly what it sounds like. The interviewer meets with a child in a room and tries to establish trust. This process is critical if the interviewer hopes the child to share details about an uncomfortable subject. Rapport building is also important to ensure that the interviewer is communicating effectively with the child in an appropriate manner.


PHASE 2: “The oath”

This part gets the interview into court. The interviewer asks the child a few questions to establish that they know the difference between the truth and a lie, and ask the child to affirm that they will tell the truth. Unlike the formal oaths that every other witness is required to swear in court that subjects them to prosecution for perjury if they say something untrue, alleged child victims get a pass on this process. Children up to the age of 16 can give an out of court video recorded statement that is automatically admissible in court so long as the interviewer meets this simple requirement.


PHASE 3: Language and baselines

This phase of the interview asks the child to identify people in his or her family, their relationships to one another, and current interactions. It also asks the child to identify relevant anatomical landmarks in their own language, which the interviewer references throughout the remainder of the conversation. It is also common to discuss good touch-bad touch and whether anyone has ever made them uncomfortable.


PHASE 4: The accusation

The accusation is why the child is at the interview, and the most important part of the process. Some children will be very direct, others elusive, and others will deny any inappropriate contact altogether. Interviewers strive for details and in the case of ongoing conduct, try to get specific details that investigators can corroborate or question an accused about later. This process can last a few minutes or can go several hours. It is common for interviewers to step out during the process to consult with the criminal investigators watching in another room.


Good interviewers will allow the child to define their own accusation, remain calm and objective, ask clarifying questions only at the end, and try to account for explanations that are consistent with an accused being innocent. However, inexperienced or biased interviewers will often direct the sequence of a child’s accusations themselves with leading questions, praise a child for telling what they believe to be the truth or implore them to ‘come clean’ if the child denies sexual assault.


PHASE 5: Completion

The interviewer finishes by asking the child if he or she has any questions, and reiterating that the child has safe adults to talk to in the event that their safety is threatened again. At the close of the interview, the interviewer will often summarize their impressions in a report, attach their notes, and provide an audiovisual copy of the recording to law enforcement.


How do you address a forensic interview in court?


Very carefully. A forensic interview can either be a defendant’s worst nightmare or his best piece of evidence, but in order to effectively illustrate inconsistencies, bias, and motive to lie, an attorney has to be very familiar with every aspect of the interview and spend significant time preparing to address the interview in court. Additionally, it is often necessary to attack the interviewer’s process, especially if the alleged victim is a young child susceptible to manipulation or unconscious bias.