What Is a Forensic Interview?

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The origins of forensic interviewing lie in dark places. These interviews apply specifically to cases of verbal, physical and sexual abuse and neglect. Experts in science and psychology developed forensic interviews as a means of gathering information from interviewees based on considerations beyond what the interviewees said.

Context

Forensic interviews are used by child protective services to determine whether a child suffered neglect or abuse from a parent, guardian or other authority figure. These interviews use several techniques developed by psychologists, childhood development experts and social scientists to create a narrative of suspected abuse or neglect. Interviewers base these narratives not only on the a child’s answers to questions but also physical cues, discrepancies between a child’s story and the story of the suspected abuser or negligent guardian and pieces of information suspiciously absent from testimonial.

Purpose

Forensic interviews create valid legal evidence and testimony based on the accounts of a child. Because the account of a child doesn’t hold any legal water, experts piece together an account of events surrounding suspected abuse or neglect and create an official narrative based on that account. Expert interviewers produce legal documents and provide expert testimony on behalf of children in court based on findings from forensic interviews. Trauma such as abuse, especially sexual abuse, may cause children to exhibit certain behaviors while blocking parts of the trauma from their minds. Thus while a child may not explicitly detail accounts of abuse, experts use cues to detect evidence of abuse and craft testimonies based on these cues.

Interpreting Forensic Interviews

Forensic interviewers use various techniques to interpret the truth behind what a child says. During the interview, interviewers use physical and verbal cues to understand whether a child is lying. Cues include body movements such as shrugs and head movements (nods, shakes), particularly during the mention of abuse or the suspected abuser, and verbal clues such as tone of voice and pauses in testimony. The correlation between body movement and the nature of a testimony also figures in the process.

Forensic interviewers create a base level understanding of a child’s general vocabulary, insight and ability for recollection questioning the child about an innocuous event such as birthday party or school trip. The interviewer then compares this recollection to recollections of abuse for inconsistencies in tone, body language, details and eloquence. Authorities videotape interviews for review and for use during expert testimony in court proceedings.

Who Conducts Forensic Interviews

A variety of experts conducts forensic interviews. The type of expert hinges on the nature of the case. Anyone conducting a forensic interview must be objective, impartial and conduct the interview in a neutral manner in order for the findings of the interview to hold up in court. Child welfare workers, therapists and social workers all conduct forensic interviews, as do others with the requisite training. Individuals conducting these interviews work for or with state authorities.

More on Forensic Interviews

Forensic interviews cannot use leading questions, or questions designed to get the interviewee to arrive at a specific answer. Questions must be age appropriate. Forensic interviews approach the world from the perspective of the child. By entering the world inhabited by the child, interviewers construct a framework in which a child feels safe. All forensic interviews are tailored to the needs of a specific case and consider the special sensitivities of the interviewee, developmental conditions and the nature of the suspected abuse.

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