A forensic interview is a fact-finding session conducted to gather information from a child who has experienced sexual assault or witnessed a crime. In sexual assault cases, forensic interviewing creates a safe and child-friendly environment, allowing the interviewer to obtain the information in a non-leading manner.
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According to Texas laws, forensic interviews should be coordinated to eliminate duplicate sessions. Asking the child to relieve a traumatizing experience can be stressful; thus, having all interested agencies observing the interview (often through a one-way mirror) eliminates the need for a repeat session(s). However, if the child is unable to relay the information in a single session, another interview may be convened.
Usually, the interviewer strives to make the child comfortable before commencing the interview. Creating rapport is essential as it encourages the child to open up and narrate the event. Interviewer objectivity is the main emphasis in a forensic interview. They must adopt non-leading techniques to ensure they gather evidence that can stand up in court during the trial.
There are instances where police have colluded with malicious spouses or people to coerce a child to give false testimony about an alleged offender. If you’re facing malicious sexual assault allegations, a forensic interview can help the experts determine whether the abuse actually took place. The interviewer must be a trained professional and is often part of a multi-disciplinary team comprising mental health professionals, family support specialists, child protection investigators and attorneys, and other specialists.
Importance of Forensic Interview in a Child Sexual Assault Case
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A forensic interview provides crucial evidence that helps determine whether the allegations are valid or not. Since it involves a child witness, it must be conducted in an environment and manner that accommodates their age and developmental abilities. Then the multi-disciplinary team evaluates the testimony and determines what may have happened.
Generally, a forensic interview aims to:
- Eliminate duplicative interrogation of the child
- Bring together the professionals involved in the case
- Coordinate services for the child and their family
But as earlier mentioned, the primary objective is to obtain legally defensible evidence in a setting sensitive to the child’s developmental ability. Moreover, the multi-agencies observing the conversation eliminates the possibility of the interviewer asking suggestive or leading questions that may discredit the testimony.
Interviewing Models and Their Differences and Similarities
In most cases, the interview is conducted at the Children’s Advocacy Center according to their interviewing model. But in other places, the model used may vary based on the interviewer’s training, agency, or jurisdiction. A fact sheet by the Children’s Bureau lists some standard interviewing models, including;
- National Children’s Advocacy Center Forensic Interview Structure
- American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children Practice Guidelines
- CornerHouse Forensic Interview Protocol
- National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Forensic Interview Protocol
- ChildFirst Forensic Interviewing Protocol
The fact sheet also highlights some similarities and differences between the models as follows;
- Rapport-building phase – The models feature an initial rapport-building stage whereby the interviewer works at making the child comfortable and building a trusting relationship. This step also allows them to evaluate the child’s developmental level and other essential capabilities to determine how to approach the conversation.
- Substantive phase – All the models feature the substantive phase, which involves the interviewer gathering information about the abuse. Mainly, they obtain a narrative description of the event and ask for additional event-related details, among other activities.
- Closure phase – In the closure phase, the interviewer transitions to an unrelated topic, discusses the child’s socioemotional needs, or offers to answer questions.
There may be other similarities between different models, but the above three are the main ones. However, they also differ in various ways, including;
- Interview structure – The interview may be structured (scripted) or semi-structured, depending on the model.
- Instructions – The instructions given to the child (and the stage when they are given) may differ from one model to another
- Truthfulness discussion – Some models require asking the child to promise to tell the truth
- Appropriate questions – Models differ on the types of preferred questions to be asked (but they all discourage asking leading questions)
Generally, the model used to conduct a forensic interview for your case will vary depending on the agency and the interviewer. For more information on the model used and how it can affect the testimony, you may want to discuss that with your attorney.
Steps in a Forensic Interview
The steps followed in a forensic interview may vary slightly based on the model used. However, a standard process will include;
- Rapport-building phase – Introduction, reviewing interview instructions, discussion on telling the truth, and practice providing narrative information
- Substantive phase – Detail-seeking strategies, description of the event, testing alternative hypotheses (if necessary)
- Closure phase – Transitioning to unrelated topics, addressing socioeconomic needs of a child, etc.
During the interview, the nurse or doctor, who is a multi-disciplinary team member, may address any medical concerns that arise. Then, based on the testimony, the team will determine whether the abuse occurred or suggest additional investigative steps.
Factors Considered When Conducting a Forensic Interview
A forensic interview requires a balance between depth and effectiveness. As much as the interviewers may have taken the same training, no two children will narrate their experiences similarly. For this reason, interviewers must be tactful and have deep intuition.
Generally, they pay attention to factors such as;
- Age and developmental level of the child
- Effect of trauma on memory
- The child’s suggestibility
While multi-disciplinary interviews are encouraged to eliminate duplicative sessions, some children might require more time to get comfortable with the interviewer calling for an additional session or sessions. In this case, it’s always recommended that the interviewer be the same in subsequent interviews.
If you have been accused of assaulting a child sexually, a professionally-conducted forensic interview can bring out the facts and potentially alter your fate. In most cases, a biased interviewer who already believes the abuse occurred might fail to gather information objectively, leading to a malicious testimony. Discuss the issue with your attorney to ensure you have the best team conducting the interview.