(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.