Necessity of Systematic Training for Interviewers

Typical training procedures do not necessarily lead to increases in interviewer effectiveness (Poole & Lamb, 1998). According to these authors “… information presented in lecture format rarely promotes significant behavior change, particularly when that information involves abstract or general principles” (p. 240). They also point out that “… interviewing is best viewed as a skill that is gradually acquired after repeated practice and feedback” (pp. 240-241) and “frequent feedback is therefore necessary throughout the training process to narrow the gap between interviewers’ subjective appraisals of their abilities or behavior and their actual performance” (p. 241). Whatever training techniques are used, all interviewers, no matter how experienced, benefit from refresher training and opportunities to review and discuss their interviews (Poole & Lamb, 1998).

Frequency of Interviewer Bias

One study in particular has dramatically demonstrated the frequency and extent of interviewer bias when interviewing young children (Pettit, Fegan, & Howie, 1990). This study examined how an interviewer’s information about events would affect the style of questioning and the accuracy of the child’s reports. Three- to five-year-olds participated in a staged event and were questioned 2 weeks later.  Some interviewers were given full, accurate knowledge of the event; some were given a report containing inaccurate information; and others were given no information about the event. All interviewers were told to question each child until they found out what happened and to avoid the use of leading questions.

The children were asked an average of 50 questions during the 20- to 30-min interview; thus, they were put under a great deal of pressure to provide information. Despite the warning to avoid leading questions, 30% of all questions were leading, and half of these were misleading. Interviewers with inaccurate knowledge asked four to five times as many misleading questions as the other interviewers. Overall, children agreed with 41% of the misleading questions, and children who were interviewed by misled interviewers gave the most inaccurate information.

Interviewers with no knowledge showed marked rises in their use of leading questions as additional children were interviewed; these interviewers extracted more inaccurate information from the children on later compared with earlier interviews. These results indicate that interviewers’ knowledge influences their style of questioning, which in turn affects the accuracy of children’s testimony. As a result, interviewers neglect to test out hypotheses other than sexual abuse. Questions designed to test out alternative possibilities are disregarded: (1) Did your mommy or daddy tell you that this happened, or did you see it happen? (2) Who else besides your teacher has touched your private parts — has your mommy touched them too? (Ceci & Bruck, 1995).

An analysis of child sexual abuse investigative interviews done by child protective professionals in the state of Tennessee revealed that the interviewers spent little time asking children open ended questions. Instead, 90% of the questions were highly specific, requiring one word answers (McGough & Warren, 1994). In response to circumstances such as these, children become very passive in contrast to active interviewers. Related research demonstrates that when children want an interview to end, they often increase the quantity of false statements (Ceci & Bruck, 1995).

Example of Biased Interviewing (Chester study)

Children 5- and 6-years-old viewed a staged event that could be considered as either abusive or innocent (Goodman & Clarke-Stewart, 1991). “Chester” interacted with some children as either (1) cleaned some dolls in a playroom, or (2) handled the dolls roughly in a mildly abusive manner. The children were interviewed about this event several times on the same day by interviewers who were: (1) Accusatory – suggesting that Chester had been playing with the toys rather than working (2) Exculpatory – suggesting that Chester had been working rather than playing, and (3) Neutral – nonsuggestive.

When questioned by a neutral interviewer, or by an interviewer whose interpretations was consistent with what the child viewed, the children provided factually accurate reports. However, when the interviewers contradicted what the child had seen, the reports of those children promptly conformed to the suggestions and beliefs of the interviewer. By the end of the first interview, 75% of these children responded in a manner consistent with the interviewer’s point of view. Ultimately, 90% of the children answered questions in a manner suggested by the interviewer. Some of the children in this study were told that Chester would lose his job if his boss found out he had played with the dolls. 69% of the children maintained the secret when interviewed by a neutral interviewer, but they eventually revealed the secret when asked suggestive questions (Clarke-Stewart, Thompson, & Lepore, 1989).

Additional Data Regarding Biased Interviews

When children were subtly pressured to express unfounded allegations, they complied 58% of the time (Clarke-Stewart, Thompson, & Lepore, 1989). After exposure to improper interviewing techniques for only 4.5 minutes, the children exhibited error rates close to 60%. When exposed to improper suggestive interviewing techniques, children become more compliant as the interview proceeds. In particular, children respond more compliantly in the second half of a suggestive interview compared to the first half. Suggestive interviewing techniques, therefore, have a cumulative effect.  These techniques make children more compliant to suggestion as the interview proceeds.

Pediatrician Study

Children 5-years-old visited their pediatrician. During that visit, a male pediatrician gave each child a physical examination, an oral polio vaccine, and an inoculation (Bruck, Ceci, Francoeur, & Barr, 1995). During that same visit, a female research assistant talked to the child about a poster on the wall, read the child a story, and gave the child some treats. One year later, the children were interviewed four times over a period of one month. During the first 3 interviews some of the children were falsely reminded that: (1) the male pediatrician showed them the poster, (2) the male pediatrician gave them treats, (3) and the female research assistant gave them the oral vaccine and the inoculation.

During the fourth and final interview, the children were asked to recall what happened during their medical visit one year previously. The children who had been misled responded quite inaccurately. More than half of them endorsed one or more misleading suggestions. 38% of these children also included nonsuggested but inaccurate events in their reports. For example, they would report that the female research assistant checked their ears and nose.

Stereotyping Effects

Children between 4 and 6 years played with a man named “Dale.” Dale also asked the children to help him take off his sweater (Lepore & Sesco, 1994). Half of the children were then interviewed in a neutral manner about their interactions with Dale. The remaining children encountered an interviewer who incriminated Dale. The incriminating interviewer made statements such as: “He wasn’t supposed to do or say that. That was bad. What else did he do?” All the children were then asked a series of direct questions about what happened with Dale.

Children in the incriminating condition gave significantly more inaccurate responses than children in the neutral condition. One third of the children in the incriminating condition embellished their incorrect responses in an incriminating manner. For example, asked if Dale ever touched other kids at school, the children indicated: (1) He touched Jason, Toni and Molly, (2) He touched them on their legs (3) He kissed them on the lips, and (4) he took their clothes off — “Yes, my shoes, my socks, and my pants. But not my shirt” (Ceci & Bruck, 1995).

In comparison with children in the neutral condition, children in the incriminating condition were more likely to make negative statements about Dale: (1) “The guy came in and did some bad things,” (2) These children also agreed that Dale intended to be bad, fool around, not do his job, and be mean.

Claims of Specialized Training

Interviewers frequently claim that their specialized training enables them to avoid interviewing children inappropriately. In fact, however, no one knows how effective specialized training is in the areas of child abuse and child maltreatment. For example, one study in particular assessed the effectiveness of A comprehensive, 10-day, seven-module curriculum, “Child Sexual Abuse Curriculum for Social Workers,” developed by the American Association for Protecting Children (AAPC), a division of the American Humane Association (Stevenson, Leung, & Cheung, 1992).

The results failed to support the hypothesis that overall assessment skills would improve subsequent to training. For a sample of 12 experienced Kentucky Social Workers, the average posttest score was slightly, but not significantly, higher than the pretest score. Therefore, training did not result in any reliable improvement for the Kentucky sample completing it. In a sample of 24 experienced California Social Workers, however, the opposite occurred. Pretest scores were higher than posttest scores. In other words, the assessment skills of the California sample declined slightly, though not significantly, as a result of this training.

Given these considerations, any investigating professional who claims expertise in assessing allegations of child sexual abuse – as a result of specialized training – should be asked the following questions:

(1) Would you agree that an objective evaluation of the effectiveness of the training program you completed would necessitate: 1) an assessment of the participants’ skills prior to the program, and 2) another assessment of the participants’ skills after completing the program

(2) And if the training program is effective, we would expect that the participants’ skills would increase subsequent to completing the program — Correct?

(3) Do you know whether the effectiveness of the training program you completed has ever been objectively evaluated in this manner?

(4) Would it surprise you to know that an evaluation of a comprehensive, 10-day, seven-module curriculum – “Child Sexual Abuse Curriculum for Social Workers,” developed by the American Association for Protecting Children (AAPC), a division of the American Humane Association – found that the participants’ skills did not increase as a result of training?

(5) Would it moreover surprise you if you knew that the skills of 24 experienced California Social Workers undergoing this training actually declined?

(6) Without any objective evaluation of the training program you completed, and in view of the demonstrated lack of effectiveness for the training program I just cited, is it still your opinion that the training you completed provides you with special expertise in assessing allegations of child sexual abuse?