From The Mouths Of Babes; Interviewing Child Witnesses.

child interview

(This article is from an investigator’s perspective. Trial attorneys bear a different obligation to prepare the child for testifying in court.)

From time to time we’ve had to interview children.  For this article, we are referring to minors under 16 years of age as witnesses in civil or criminal matters.  The most important thing to do when questioning children is to establish trust.  Most children are painfully shy when talking to strangers – moreso in situations that are fraught with tension such as giving testimony.  Put the child at ease by showing an interest in her by asking open-ended questions about her everyday life.  Due to their agile brains, children can multitask quite well so to divert her attention somewhat from the intensity of what she may have witnessed, distract her during the questioning by providing a fun and engaging activity.

We go into each interview with a child thinking this will be the only shot we will get to question her.    You really don’t want to interview a child multiple times.  If a child is re-interviewed often and then has to live testify, the final product in court may come out sounding rehearsed.

Given the unsettling event that the child has witnessed, each recall may induce stress trauma so we prefer to have a parent or guardian present during interviews.

As to the actual questioning itself, make the questions are open-ended and simple to avoid being leading.   If you call a child as a witness and she misstates or fails to state a significant fact, the best tactic is to avoid confronting her with prior statements or intricate evidence. Asking the same question in a slightly different way may be all you need do to obtain the accurate response. Generally, you should confront a child with a prior inconsistent statement only if she is recanting her entire account of an event.  When confronting a child with inconsistencies, do so in a delicate and respectful way.

Also consider the role of “syndrome evidence.” There is a large body of medical literature addressing  the various syndromes that can affect child witness recall (e.g., child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, repressed memory syndrome, etc.).

Finally, be aware of your own preconceptions. Many people expect sexually abused children to cry and exhibit negative emotion when testifying about alleged abuse, and many adults tend to disbelieve child witnesses who do not emote in this way.  But research indicates that children commonly do not cry or express negative emotions when describing sexual abuse and there are a number logical of reasons for their unanimated testimony in general. For instance, children are often interviewed multiple times regarding the incident or they may simply not have perceived the event as negative. What’s more, the emotion expressed by testifying children could be a reaction to being interviewed by you – a perfect stranger –  and have little to do with the alleged incident itself.

Remember to give yourself plenty of time for the interview as children can take a while to get out their story but they will tell it and tell it truthfully.

BNI Operatives: Situationally aware.

As always, be safe.

Read That Body (Language)

body language final

by Lina M. Maini

One of the most important tools in an investigator’s arsenal when questioning people is her  ability to quickly and accurately read the subject’s  body language.  Most people believe that they are exceptionally good at judging the physical stances and reactions of others.  Test yourself. If a subject’s feet are crossed at the ankle; significance?   A slightly tilted head and one that is overly tilted indicate two very different emotions.  What are they?  How does the investigator subliminally encourage the subject’s cooperation?

Obviously, use your common sense but, generally, the below tips on body language are rooted in the many studies and practical experiences in the field in decoding innate physiological reactions that occur when someone is confronted.

1. Physical Closeness. Slowly Does It. 

  • Does the subject appear comfortable with your physical presence in his environment?  We’ve all heard about one’s “personal space”, the approximate 18″ perimeter around oneself which, when breached, can either alarm or relax a person.  (Bear in mind that personal space is culturally fluid; what may be considered close in one country is distant in another.)   If the  person entering the personal space is a “friendly”, the subject is relaxed and welcoming; a relative stranger or an adversary entering this space is perceived as a threat and  will make the subject uncomfortable.
  • Know your intent: If you are seeking the subject’s cooperation, gradually draw yourself closer and gage the reaction.  When this personal space is accessed by gradual degrees, the result can be a more trusting environment, encouraging the subject to share information.

2. Head Position

  • Overly titled head are a sign of sympathy, potentially even playful/flirtatious.  (Be careful when encountering a subject employing this type head position as they may be intentionally trying to disarm or distract the questioner.)
  • A lowered head indicate that the subject may have reason to hide something.  It could be evasion, shyness, fear, disbelief or, s/he may be thinking to oneself or trying to decide whether to cooperate.  (Gage the reaction and act appropriately by either gently backtracking from the current line of questioning that prompted this reaction or move almost imperceptibly closer to the subject with hands in the up and open position – indicating empathic and trustworthiness.)
  • A slightly tilted head in your direction means that the subject is confused or judging or challenging you. (In this case, maintain eye contact and shift slightly horizontally which the subject perceives as your backing down as you’ve moved further away when in fact you’re exactly the same distance away, just in a different spot.)

3. The Eyes Have It.

People who look:

  • to the sides often  are nervous, lying,distracted or trying to hide something emotional.
  • away from the speaker are indicating that they are uncomfortable or submissive.
  • at the speaker with a questioning look are unconvinced or distrustful.
  • at the speaker with dilated pupils, (unless the subject is under the influence) indicate that they are interested.

4. The Mirror Effect.  

  • If someone mimics your body language this is a very genuine sign that they are trying to establish rapport with you. If you change your position from time to time and they do likewise, they are mirroring you.  This is a very useful tool for the investigator as the subject is fully engaged, sympathetic or empathetic and more likely to release information as their natural reservation is diminished by the effort of trying to keep pace with your physical movements.

5.  Check the Arms. 

  • Closed arms indicate that the subject has closed themselves off to outside influence.
  • Folded arms with the feet positioned shoulder length apart indicates a position of toughness or authority.
  • Rubbing their hands together or otherwise touching their body is an effort to comfort themselves, indicating their uncomfortableness with the current situation.
  • Arms resting behind their neck or head means that they are open to what is being discussed.
  • Arms on hips indicate irritation or impatience.
  • If their hands are closed, they could be angry or nervous.

6. Nervous Gestures.

  • If someone brushes their hair back with their fingers, this may be preening, a common gesture if the person likes you, or their thoughts about something conflict with yours. If their eyebrows are raised during this gesture, they do not agree with you.
  • If the person wears glasses, and is constantly pushing them up onto their nose again, with a slight frown, this may indicate that they disagree with what you are saying. Look to make sure they push up their glasses with an intent, not casually adjusting them. Look for pushing on the rim with two fingers, or an extra motion of wiggling the side of their glasses. The distinguishing feature is whether they are looking directly at you while doing it.
  • Lowered eyebrows and squinted eyes illustrate an attempt at understanding what is being said or going on. It’s usually skeptical.

7.  Watch their feet

  • A fast tapping, shifting of weight, or movement of the foot will most often mean that the person is impatient, excited, nervous, scared, or intimidated.
  • The meaning of feet tapping can usually be discerned depending on the context; if you are currently talking and they are tapping their feet, that is an indication of a desire to leave (though usually this behavior manifests when the person is anxious to get somewhere specific, such as a meeting, rather than because of what you’re doing specifically).
  • Slow shuffling indicates boredom with the current situation.
  • If the person is sitting, feet crossed at the ankles means they’re generally at ease.
  • If while standing, a person seems to always keep their feet very close together, it probably means they are trying to be “proper” in some way. Sometimes feet together means that they are feeling more submissive or passive.
  • Some people may point their feet to the direction of where they want to go or sometimes their interest.

Again, many external or unknown factors can influence a subject’s cooperation but being able to gauge the meaning of the subject’s body language expertly and correctly is usually the difference between a successful interview and a frustrating and fruitless one.

BNI Operatives: Street smart; info savvy.

As always, stay safe.

Evaluating MVA Witnesses For Deposition/Trial


This week’s guest contributor is Louis C. Amen, Det., NYPD (Ret.) .  (Detective Amen spent the majority of his NYPD career with the highly regarded Accident Investigation Squad [AIS],  Highway 3.   AIS is called onto an MVA site when there are participants in the vehicular event that are seriously injured and likely to die or fatalities are involved.)  

Evaluating Motor Vehicle Accident Witnesses (for depositions/trial) :

When interviewing a witness to an MVA for the purpose of assessing the strength and depth of her recall, an investigator is also evaluating her ability to “present well” under oath, whether at an EBT (Examination Before Trial) or the actual trial itself.  We’re taking stock of the witness’ ability to articulate well, be concise but thorough and firm in her testimony and whether she can remain focused under potentially grueling questioning.

Whether it’s in the relative immediate aftermath of an incident or five years later, it is important to know the following:

1. Witness’ perspective.

  • Was s/he in any of the vehicles involved in the MVA?
  • If not, determine exact location. (I.e., in other uninvolved vehicle in the vicinity,  position in that vehicle – a driver of an SUV may have  better line of sight to the incident than a rear seat passenger of a Honda Accord, or on the sidewalk or  crossing a roadway…)

2. Witness relationship to any involved parties (drivers, passengers, pedestrian,cyclist).

3. Has the witness tried to steer any of the involved parties to lawyers, doctors, investigators?

4. (Ask delicately.) Was the witness under the influence (including prescription drugs)?

The most effective method of obtaining a valid and comprehensive assessment of the witness is to, throughout the interview, put yourself in her position.  From a physical and psychological point of view.  Re-ask the important questions in this mode.  If the picture that the witness  is portraying isn’t coming together for the investigator, it won’t connect for the jurors.

louis amen suit

Louis C. Amen, Det., NYPD (Ret.)