One of the most difficult things a law enforcement officer must do in the commission of his or her duties is interview a victim. This task becomes even more difficult if the victim is a child or is mentally impaired in some manner. Techniques used when interviewing child victims are drastically different than ones used to interview adult victims.
When conducting an interview of a child victim, the physical and emotional well-being of the child must be placed over any other considerations relevant to the case, to include an eventual guilty verdict or other type of criminal conviction later on. Taking a few proactive steps before you conduct the interview can help to ensure that your interview is smooth and successful. Having the proper training and experience will ensure that any trauma and stress the child may feel during the interview will be kept to a minimum.
Before of the Interview
Choosing a proper location before interviewing a child victim is paramount. Since one of the most important goals in conducting child victim interviews is to minimize any stress or trauma to the child, the number of times the child is interviewed must also be kept to an absolute minimum. Ensuring a proper location will minimize the risk of needing to interview the child victim multiple times. It is always recommended to seek out and familiarize yourself with your jurisdiction’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) or Child Protective Services Department (CPS) or their equivalent.
These organizations often have facilities that are dedicated to interviewing child victims and are often equipped with video/audio recording equipment and video/audio redaction software that you can utilize. It is worth thinking about how you will preserve and maintain the video/audio recording of this interview (see “After the Interview” paragraph for more on this). If a location specifically designated to interviewing child victims or witnesses is not available, a location needs to be chosen based first on the safety and comfort of the child and second on where you are likely to achieve the greatest results during the interview.
Conducting the Interview
It is recommended that the child victim be interviewed by a person of the same sex. If a law enforcement officer or other professional trained in child victim interviewing of the same sex is not available, it is important to have at least one person of the same sex as the child present in the room at all times. The interview should begin by explaining who you are to the child and that they are not in any trouble or danger. The child should be asked if they know the difference between the truth and a lie and asked to give an example of both. Next the child should be asked about themselves. Open ended questions such as “tell me about school,” or “what do you like to do when you play,” will encourage the child to open up about themselves and will make them more comfortable with the idea of speaking to you about themselves.
When a decent rapport has been established between you and the child, they should be asked the question, “Why are you here today?” At this point the child may disclose the details of the crime without any further questions. If the child does not know, the interviewer may ask leading questions at this point. It is always important to keep the child’s wellbeing in mind at all times. If the child becomes upset or needs a break, always respect their need to do so. At the conclusion of the interview, thank the child victim for talking to you and tell them that their parent or guardian is always welcome to call you if they have any questions or if the victim thinks of anything else. Always provide the child’s guardian with information on resources for victims that may be available in your area.
After the Interview
When the interview is over, a report about the interview should be written as soon as possible to ensure that every detail is captured while it is fresh in the law enforcement officer’s mind. The officer should not rely solely on the video/audio recording of the interview when writing the report but a combination of memory and these recordings. After the report is written, the video/audio recording will need to be preserved for future use. The easiest and most effective way to do this is with a professional digital evidence management system. Unlike traditional evidence management systems, a digital evidence management system is designed specifically to preserve digital evidence and is much more reliable than keeping digital evidence on a CD/DVD or external hard drive.
Securing this evidence properly may be the difference between achieving a conviction in the case and seeing justice fail to be done. One factor in choosing your digital evidence management system is whether it allows for archiving of digital recordings, such as child interviews, where retention protocol may require a lengthy storage timeline, compared to adult oriented crime.
Successful child victim interviews are not easy to achieve. There are several different factors that must be considered before, during and after conducting a child victim interview. Which location should you choose for your interview? Is this location suitable and will it make the child feel comfortable? Does that location have audio/video recording software and audio/video redaction software available to use? What type of digital evidence management system do you have to preserve the recording of the interview? All of these issues must be addressed in order to conduct a successful child victim interview. With a little extra effort and preparation, a successful child victim interview that yields results and keeps unnecessary stress and trauma from hurting the child can be achieved.