Law Enforcement Officers would give anything to keep a child from witnessing a crime or other traumatic event. Unfortunately, children are often unwilling onlookers before, during, and after a crime has been committed and may be the only witness to a crime in certain situations. While using a child as a witness should be a last resort in a criminal case, it is often necessary to do so. If doing so is unavoidable, the law enforcement officer must be cognizant of the child’s physical and emotional well-being and must minimize any potential trauma that the child may face. Interviewing a child witness must be conducted in a substantially different manner than interviewing an adult witness. Following a few basic guidelines will ensure that the trauma and stress the child experiences before, during, and after the interview is kept to a minimum. Please note that this article relates to interviewing child witnesses only, interviewing child victims will be discussed, at a later date.
Location of the Interview
When deciding to interview a child witness, it is very important to determine the proper location to do so. The location of the interview must be a safe place (i.e. not at or near an active crime scene or within visual range of any potential suspects). While a police station or other secure law enforcement facility may seem like an ideal location, the child witness may be intimidated by the numerous law enforcement personnel present or may not understand that they are not in trouble of any kind. If your jurisdiction’s Department of Children and Families or Child Protective Services Department has a facility that has been set up to conduct child interviews, it is well worth it to inquire about using their facility for your interview. These facilities are designed to make children feel comfortable often by providing them with a fun activity to do during the interview, and are usually equipped to provide a digital recording of the interview to be used as digital evidence later.
Permission to Interview the Child
Depending on your jurisdiction, it may be necessary to obtain permission from the child’s parent or guardian before your interview begins. It is also important that law enforcement personnel know what their specific agency policy dictates with regard to child interviews and what permissions must be given before the commission of the interview. When in doubt, do not proceed with the interview. An interview can always be re-scheduled for a later date when necessary.
Interviewing the Child Witness
The number of times a child witness is interviewed must be kept to an absolute minimum. This is important because the child may experience the trauma and stress of re-living witnessing a crime with each interview. It is also likely that if the child is interviewed multiple times, their testimony may seem rehearsed if they ever do have to testify in a court of law. The most important phase in the child witness interview process is the rapport stage. It is a good idea to start the interview by asking the child questions about their school, their hobbies, and their friends (etc.) before asking any questions about the crime that the child witnessed. The interviewer should ask open-ended, non-leading, simple questions, and evaluate whether the child should be called as a witness in court, should that be necessary. It is also a good idea to establish that the child can differentiate between a truth and a lie. If the child is competent enough to do so, they are more than likely able to testify during a trial if the need should arise. Finally, the child should always be in the presence of two adults, preferably both law enforcement officers and at least one of the same sex as the child. If there is a law enforcement officer or social worker trained specifically in child witness or child victim forensic interviews available, it is best practice to allow them to conduct the interview, or lead the interview at a minimum.
Conducting a successful child witness interview is no easy task. In addition to extracting information from a person whose brain is only partially developed, the interviewer must also take into consideration the legal/political ramifications of conducting the interview and must also consider the potential trauma to the child that the interview may cause. No matter what the outcome, law enforcement officers must ensure that the child is safe and comfortable, and must take extra care not to traumatize the child. By taking the additional steps necessary to facilitate a child witness interview, law enforcement officers can ensure that they maximize the value that a child witness can provide to their case, while minimizing the stress and trauma on the child that the interview may cause.