Preliminary Considerations

While speaking with a parent or caretaker, an interviewer should inquire about one or two known events that recently transpired in the child’s life. If the child attended a recent birthday party, for example, the interviewer can determine: (1) Whose birthday was celebrated? (2) Who else attended the party? (3) Where was the party held? (4) What kinds of gifts were given? (5) Did the children eat at the party, and if so, what? and (6) Did the children participate in some activity – riding a pony, going to a zoo, watching a magician, etc.? A well prepared interviewer will then use this information when questioning a child who may have been sexually abused.

Effective Interviews and Avoiding Acquiescence

Once the necessary background information has been obtained, the interview begins by establishing rapport with the child. The interviewer can draw the child into discussing the school she attends, or her family, or her hobbies, for instance. Very early in the interview, it is necessary to deal with the problem of acquiescence. Children perceive the adults with whom they converse as well-informed people who question them only to test their knowledge. Children find it difficult to understand how they could possess important information unknown to an adult. 

In response to an interview, children attempt to determine what the adult expects to hear and then answer accordingly. They exhibit what is known as acquiescence — responding “Yes” to questions in an attempt at satisfying the expectations they attribute to the adult interviewing them. Interviewers can reduce the contaminating effects of acquiescence by explaining to the child, “I may say something, or ask something, where I am wrong. If I am wrong about something, will you promise to tell me?” 

Children typically agree to “help” an interviewer in this manner; and as a result, the interviewer can ask the child to practice. In particular, I ask children to practice saying, “No, Dr. Campbell, that’s wrong!” Lavishly praising children for their willingness to correct the interviewer reduces the effects of acquiescence. Approximately five or ten minutes after children have practiced correcting a mistaken assumption of mine, I will ask a question that presumes erroneous information.

For example, I often ask children about a non-existent sibling – “How old is your younger brother?” – and then wait for the child to correct me. In response to being corrected, I emphatically applaud the child for “helping me.” In response to this praise, children pay close attention to any other errors I might commit over the course of the interview.  Even more importantly, the child is less inclined to acquiesce in response to my questions.

Assisting the Child’s Recall

The interview then moves to asking children about the one or more known events that have recently occurred in their lives. If the child recently attended a friend’s birthday party, for example, I will ask the child to tell me about this event. In particular, I want the child to spontaneously describe what happened at the party. When the child finishes her description, I explain that maybe I can help her remember some more things (Saywitz & Snyder, 1996).  I then introduce her to four simple drawings to aid her recall.  The drawings correspond to: (1) participants – who was there?, (2) setting – where did the event occur?, (3) actions – who did what at this event?, and (4) conversations – who said what to whom? 

I then ask the child to tell me about the known event while specifically referring to these four issues. Quite obviously, this portion of my interview is more than leading or suggestive — it is directive. However, I am directing the child about how to most effectively remember past events.  I am not directing the child regarding what she recalls. My influence limits itself to defining a strategy that enhances the accuracy of her recall. In particular, I ask the child to again tell me about the known event focusing on the participants, the setting, actions of the participants, and conversations of the participants.

Organizing the memories of children in this manner allows them to recall more information about past events without influencing what they remember.  The details children report about known events also serve as a baseline of comparison when obtaining details about the alleged abuse. In other words, I assess whether the child describes the alleged sexual abuse with the same quantity and quality of details that she describes the known event.  By the time I direct the interview to the critical issues of alleged sexual abuse, the child feels relatively comfortable with me. 

We have spent time discussing benign events while the child “assists” me.  Therefore, the child is responding to me with a sense of trust and comfort when the interview addresses the allegations of sexual abuse. I do resort to a slightly leading question to raise the issue of possible sexual abuse asking: “I was told that someone might have touched your privates, but I don’t know what happened, can you help me?” (This question is asked after the child’s “private areas” have been identified). As the child spontaneously describes the alleged abuse, I confine myself to asking, “And what happened next, what happened after that?” After the child finishes her narrative, I re-introduce the pictures directing her to the issues of (1) participants, (2) setting, (3) actions, and (4) conversations.