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ABE Interviews: Is the Child's ‘Best Evidence’ being achieved in alleged sexual abuse cases? (Part 2)

In the second part of her article, Brenda Robinson presents her findings of ABE interviews in practice.

Part 1 of this article was published in July 2008 and can be found here
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Critiques of ABE Interview Practice

Research studies
Evidence from research and practice would appear to reinforce the wisdom of employing the four-phased approach when interviewing children 1

However, even at this very basic structural level, a number of problems have been identified in practice. Some twelve years ago, Davies et al  2 found that the four phases advised in The Memorandum were clear in just 30% of interviews, and that there was no free narrative account phase at all in 28%. The interviewer prematurely directed the child away from the free narrative to the questioning phase in 43% of the interviews. Further studies have found that open-ended questions elicit more accurate information than those which are specific, and the child’s responses to open ended invitations to speak are longer and richer than responses to specific questions 3.  However, even when interviewers do use open-ended invitations early in the interview, there is often a rapid ‘leap’ to specific questions after the child’s first response. 4 

More recently, Westcott 5 found that 88% of interviews began with ‘utility questions’ rather than the advised rapport to settle and relax the child. This study also found that in 30% of cases, the interviewer ‘jumped in’ too quickly with specific questions. Such problematic conduct in the first few minutes can have important adverse effects later in the interview, as the brief focused questions (and associated brief answers from the child) may continue throughout. 6 In one American state, Warren and her colleagues 7 found that 90% of all questions put to the child during the interview were specific ones, and further, that the majority (i.e. 64%) simply called for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. These researchers found that children rarely were asked questions which prompted a free narrative account, but that when they were, they responded accordingly.

Children’s evidence may therefore (contrary to the ABE guidance) take the form of a series of brief responses to equally brief questions from the interviewer. In judging the evidential strength of the child’s account however, surveys have found that the Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and The Courts are likely to make decisions based on clarity, the amount of detail and consistency.8 

Children’s views
Following eight-year-old Warren’s interview, the police informed Social Services that it was ‘inconclusive’, and that no further action would be taken. Some days later, Warren said that the police interviewer had been ‘fat and bossy’, that he asked ‘loads of nosey questions,’ and that ‘he didn’t like me.’ As a result, this child had decided not to say anything to the officer within the first few minutes of the interview. It later transpired that Warren had been subjected to many months of repeated anal rape by his father (a man who had previously served three years in prison for sexually abusing children). 9

Other children who have undergone investigative interviews 10 have reported that they were not prepared for the interview and did not know what was happening; that their anxieties and fear were not acknowledged or discussed; that they worried during the interview as to the effect anything they might say would have on the family (especially mum); that they did not understand the interviewer’s language; and that they felt disbelieved and confused because of the continual questions about times and dates, ‘what people were wearing’ and the sequence of events. Children have also reported feeling confused and ‘flustered’ by this concentration on peripheral detail; ‘put off’ from telling the truth because of the accusatory presentation of the interviewer; ‘muddled’ by the interviewer’s ‘chopping and changing’ their words; and being unable to tell the whole story because of the ‘bluntness’ of the interviewer. 11 Westcott and Wade 12 concluded that:

‘Many children depicted their interview as dominated by questions from the interviewer, and a search for specific detail which the children had experienced difficulty in providing. We accept that clarity, and the quality of information obtained, are of vital significance for evidential purposes, but the type of interview described by children is not that recommended by The Memorandum.’

OBSERVATIONS AND COMMENT ON 140 ABE INTERVIEWS
The type of interview described by these children was unfortunately, all too evident in those assessed by the author. A systematic analysis has yet to be carried out, but the following factors were very much in evidence.

General points
There was little indication that any of the interviews had been planned or prepared in an informed way, if at all. Rather, an ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ approach appeared to constitute the most common planning ‘strategy’. The overwhelming majority were conducted solely by a police officer, with no social worker present in either the interview or the equipment room. Some had been conducted without any planning or information exchange with the social worker. Interestingly, several involved interviews with children from the same family, often in rather complex cases. Here the interviews were conducted one after the other on the same day by the same interviewer, with no time being devoted to review or preparation. The children involved ranged from 6 to 14 years, but there was little evidence that there had been any adaptation of the interview to meet the child’s developmental level and abilities. In some of these cases, the interviewer’s statements (especially in the ‘preamble) were almost exactly similar. There had apparently been no pre-interview explanation to the child in any of the 140 cases assessed.

Rapport
The overwhelming majority of interviews did not begin with any ‘settling’ discussion, but instead, immediately began with a sequence of detailed and specific questions about the date, the time and place, and a series of other ‘utility’ issues, irrespective of the child’s age and developmental abilities. In some, the tone of this sequence almost resembled that of an interrogation.  For example, children were asked: ‘do you know what the date is today?; do you know what year it is?; do you know what month it is?; do you know where we are?; do you remember my name?; and how old are you?; and when were you born?; and what date were you born?’; and what month were you born?; and do you know what those things on the walls are?, and, do you know what they are for?’

Some interviewers moved immediately to the ground rules and the truth and lies ‘ceremony’. Ground rules were stated competently in the majority of cases, but there were some evident difficulties when interviewers addressed the subject of ‘truth and lies’. In a few cases, even six and seven-year-old children were asked the ill advised general question, i.e. ‘do you know the difference between truth and lies?’ 13 whilst other interviewers did not include the ‘intent to deceive’ in their chosen examples. Rather, there was a statement such as  – ‘if I said I was wearing a pink spotty shirt, would that be the truth or a lie?’.
 
Whether ‘truth and lies’ was addressed during the first few minutes of the interview or at a later point, there was a noticeable use of the words ‘little story’ and ‘let’s pretend’ when giving examples to the child. Interestingly, the majority of interviewers omitted to address an example of the truth, and simply established that the child could give an example of a lie. A small minority of interviewers told the child which was which, rather than elicit a response.

The majority of interviewers then gave lengthy preambles to children who sat in total silence (in one remarkable interview this extended for 15 pages of the transcript). Many read from a clearly present ‘crib sheet’ (and in a tone which suggested that they had said the words a thousand times before). Children were reassured that they were not in any trouble, that ‘it’ was not their fault, and that they could leave the room at any time. Some interviewers told the child that they would be asking ‘lots of questions’. A small minority of others asked the child for his or her understanding of going to Court, before explaining cross examination by barristers in some detail – a strategy which seemed to be somewhat peculiar during the part of the interview intended to settle and relax the child. A substantial number of children had been given a drink and biscuits on entering the interview room, and many were subsequently told to stop eating, as the interviewer could not hear their responses.

A rapport subject was usually introduced by the interviewer at this belated point, i.e. after a long series of specific questions, the preamble, the ground rules and ‘truth and lies’. The vast majority chose the subject of ‘school’. However, rather than elicit and promote conversation from the child at this point, the interviewer usually asked a further string of brief ‘investigative’ questions, for example – ‘what day did you go on the school trip?’; ‘do you remember what time you set off?’; ‘did you go by bus or car?’; what colour was the bus?’; ‘how many children went on the trip?’; ‘who went?’; ‘what are your friends’ names?’; ‘who’s your best friend?’; ‘what were you wearing?’; ‘what could you see from the window?’; ‘how many cows could you see?’, and even – ‘what colour were the cows?’ In the vast majority, a rhythm of ‘brief question/brief answer’ was firmly set before any alleged offences were addressed.

Free Narrative
Irrespective of the child’s age, the interviewer introduced the purpose of the interview by asking ‘why do you think you are here today.’ If the child failed to speak about any alleged offences, most interviewers then asked detailed questions about the child’s family members, the family home, the rooms in the home, and where people slept. In a substantial number of cases, the child made reference to an alleged offence at some point during the above sequence.

Given the forensic purpose of the interview, and the importance of eliciting the child’s free narrative account about any alleged offences, the questioning style employed in the overwhelming majority of interviews at this point was rather concerning. Whenever the child made any mention of an alleged sexual offence, the interviewer immediately ‘leapt in’ with a string of contextual questions, rather than a statement designed to elicit free narrative account (for example – ‘and then what happened?’ or ‘you tell me all about that’). Many of the children made explicit early statements such as – ‘he was reading the story and then he put his hand down my ‘jama bottoms’’; ‘he hurt my bottom’; he put his willy in my mouth,’ and so on. There was a most striking lack of attention to eliciting the child’s free account of what (if anything) had transpired. Rather, at the child’s very first mention of an alleged offence, the interviewers immediately responded in a manner which diverted the child away from any free account of the sequence and content of the alleged events. As just some examples, these were – ‘and what were you wearing?’; ‘and where was that?’; ‘and what room was that?’; ‘and did he say anything?’; ‘and what was he wearing?’; ‘and what colour were his pyjamas?’; ‘and did they have any motif on them?’, and, ‘what day was that?’. The children were asked repeated peripheral questions about the circumstances surrounding ‘it’, and yet the ‘it’ remained unclarified in the overwhelming majority of interviews. Such observations would seem to mirror the comments of Goodman and Clarke Stewart:

‘The questions the children are asked often focus on peripheral details of the incident, like what the confederate was wearing, rather than on the main actions that occurred or, more to the point, whether sexual acts were committed.’ 14

It is suggested that such a questioning style may have a number of important effects. For example, many children may infer that the interviewer does not want to hear the explicit details of ‘what happened’. Such questions may confuse, or divert the child away from speaking about the alleged offence, so that evidential proofs are not addressed. Similarly, such a questioning style may actively inhibit the child’s free narrative about alleged offences so that important ‘free’ and unusual detail is lost. Lastly, there has been the suggestion that children’s memory for peripheral detail may be less robust than for a personally experienced event. 15

A further technique which appeared to divert the child away from any free account he or she might have been able to give involved the premature clarification of body parts. Again, as soon as the child made any mention of intimate body parts the interviewer ‘leapt in’ with specific questions such as – ‘and do you know any other names for that part?’; or, ‘what do you use that part for?’; or, ‘and what is your understanding of sex?’; or, and ‘what do you mean by sexual intercourse?’. In some cases the interviewer then asked further peripheral questions which took the subject under discussion further away from the content of the alleged offences. None of the interviewers employed genitalled dolls, 16 and a minority instead asked the child to demonstrate on their own bodies, against the explicit ABE guidance:

‘The use of dolls or diagrams is always preferable to children referring to their own bodies when reference needs to be made to the location of sexual acts.’ 17 

Questioning Phase
This was wholly indistinguishable from the supposed free narrative phase in all but two of the interviews, and the established pattern of brief, specific questions (largely addressing contextual detail) simply persisted. A minority of interviewers did address ‘defence points’, but these were usually not in the ‘neutral’ manner suggested above. For example – ‘so how could you see what he was wearing if the light was off?’

Closing Phase
This was hardly discernible in the interviews assessed, as most ended rather abruptly. None contained any recap of the key points made by the child. Some interviewers suddenly ‘switched’ into a more ‘jolly’ presentation, and asked questions about what the child would do later that day. Others ended the interview by making rather superficial attempts to ‘cheer the child up’.

Common questioning errors
Apart from the rather striking concentration on brief contextual questions rather than on eliciting free narrative account, many of the interviews revealed concerning errors in questioning technique. Questions were often complex and employed adult phraseology and language; some were leading, whilst others were double and treble in nature – especially once the child had made reference to an alleged sexual offence. The same formulaic routine appeared to be followed irrespective of the child’s age, developmental level, or the circumstances of the particular case.
 
Further, a substantial number of interviewers employed ‘victim blame’ questions, which implied fault or responsibility on the part of the alleged victim. Some examples were – ‘why did you go upstairs when you knew he was in your bedroom?’; ‘how long have you had this sexual relationship with him then?’; ‘why didn’t you tell anyone?’, and, ‘why didn’t you try to stop him?’ Several interviewers repeatedly asked the child to explain the alleged offender’s motivation, for example –‘so why do you think he did that?’ Given that many traumatised children often experience profound guilt, shame and responsibility 18 as a consequence of sexual assault (particularly that perpetrated by a key attachment figure) such statements would appear to be rather ill advised. Moreover, in the interviews where this questioning technique was used, the child had earlier been clearly reassured that ‘it’ was not their fault.
 
In an associated way, none of the interviewers seemed able to address the ways in which the child may have been pressured by others prior to the interview. Clearly, two main possibilities exist here. The first is that the child has been pressured to keep the sexual assault secret, whilst the second is that the child has been pressured to make a false allegation. The following type of exchange was noted in one interview and a similar approach was taken in others:

Interviewer: Okay, so you said your daddy hurt your fanny. What did he do?
Child:  I can’t tell you, it’s a secret
Interviewer: You can tell me – this is a ‘no secrets’ room
Child:  No I can’t tell you
Interviewer: But it’s ok for you to tell, I won’t be embarrassed. Children tell me all sorts of things in this room.
Child:  But I can’t
Interviewer: Remember we talked earlier about how important it is to tell the truth?
Child: But I can’t. I can’t!

An advised alternative is to ask a question which addresses the source of any possible pressure. For example:

Interviewer: Okay, so you said your daddy hurt your fanny. What did he do?
Child:  I can’t tell you, it’s a secret
Interviewer: It’s a secret. Okay, then I won’t ask you to tell. What I do need to know though, is what you think might happen if you did tell me?

So, for example, a child might reply – ‘Daddy would go to prison’ or ‘Mummy would be cross’. When addressing the hypothesis that the allegation is true or false, follow up questions such as – ‘And what would Daddy go to prison for?’ or – ‘And what would make Mummy cross?’ or – ‘And how do you know that? - may elicit a more specific response from the child.

Inconsistencies in the child’s account
The presence of inconsistencies in the account (or between the accounts of siblings) may be an indication that the child is making a false allegation. Equally, inconsistency may well be an indication of veracity. The issue merits very careful attention in pre-interview preparation, particularly where previous abuse is known or suspected, or where there are suspicions that abuse may have occurred on different occasions over time. In the absence of such preparation, it is suggested that the interviewer’s conduct may contribute in no small measure to a subsequent lack of clarity. Several authors have commented upon the issue. For example, Terr stated that:

‘The probability is that short, single events from early childhood will better be recalled in words than will extended, multiple or variable events.’ 19

Children may well confuse the different occasions when the offences were alleged to occur, and thus appear inconsistent. Inconsistency and lack of cogency does not necessarily equate with untruthfulness however. As Fivush stated:

‘The more distinctive an event remains, the easier is it to access and recall. As events become more routine, the memory representation becomes more schematic, focussing on what usually happens and often losing details of specific occurrences. Thus, paradoxically, memories of chronic abuse may be less detailed than memories of a single, traumatic event.’ 20

As a result of these important issues, interviewers need to be especially ‘tuned in’ to any mention from the child of more than one, or indeed several, alleged offences. The informed response necessitates asking the child to think carefully about ‘one time’, and to ‘tell me as much about it as you can from start to finish’. Where this is not attended to, the child may give a number of seemingly contradictory answers to the interviewer’s brief questions about the context of the alleged offence. For example, the child may state that it was dark, that she was wearing blue pyjamas, and it was a Saturday. Later in her account she may allege that it was daytime, she was wearing a pink nightie, and it was Wednesday. Where the interviewer fails to clarify the child’s mention of ‘other times’, ‘that time’, ‘some times’, ‘lots of times’, inconsistencies in the account may well occur.

None of the interviewers seemed to be even remotely aware of this issue in the cases assessed. In one concerning case involving a nine-year-old boy, there was the following exchange:

Child:  ‘And it’s just me and my dad, and he just decides to be drunk and silly
Interviewer: Yes?
Child:  My brother goes to bed
Interviewer: Yes?
Child:  And he puts his hands down where my willy is
Interviewer: Okay.
Child: It’s really weird. He does it loads of times and he always laughs about it.
Interviewer: Okay. And what were you wearing?

This interviewer consistently failed to attend to one of the times alleged by the child, and instead, repeatedly asked generalised peripheral questions whenever the boy mentioned alleged sexual assaults. In the previous criminal proceedings, the defendant had been acquitted, and the Judge had made particular reference to the child’s ‘gross inconsistencies’ and ‘the lack of any detailed description of the offences alleged against him’ in his summing up.

Summary of the interviews
As stated above, all 140 interviews concerned cases of alleged sexual abuse. There was no indication that any had been preceded by informed preparation or consultation with the social worker. Similarly, there was no discernible evidence that a pre-interview explanation had been given to the child in any of the interviews. All of the interviews were conducted by police officers, and a social worker was present (or in the camera room) in very few cases.

The interviews were carried out by police officers in four different geographical areas. Although containing some minor variations, the sequence in all of the interviews did not remotely resemble the four-phased approach contained in ABE guidelines. Only two began with an attempt to establish a ‘settling’ rapport with the child. The remaining 138 contained no initial rapport, and instead the interviewer asked a series of ‘utility’ questions from the first few seconds. In the majority, the interviewer then moved straight to an explanation of the ‘ground rules’ for the interview and the truth and lies ‘ceremony’. The ground rules were stated competently in the majority, but there were evident difficulties when addressing the subject of ‘truth and lies’. A belated rapport subject was then usually introduced, and most commonly centred on ‘school’. However, rather than promote conversation from the child, and establish an interview ‘rhythm’ where the child did most of the talking and the interviewer did most of the listening, rapport consisted of further brief and specific (if not investigative) questions, with equally brief responses from the child.

Despite the importance of eliciting the child’s free narrative account of any alleged offences in the second phase of the interview, none of the interviewers demonstrated awareness of the necessary ‘prompting’ techniques. Rather, at the child’s first mention of any alleged sexual offence, the interviewer consistently ‘leapt in’ with a series of peripheral questions – usually about ‘what people were wearing’, the rooms in the house, the layout of rooms, what people said, when and where ‘it’ happened, and the positions people were in when ‘it’ happened. It is suggested that the child was frequently ‘diverted away’ from speaking about any alleged sexual offence as a result. Another common ‘diverting’ technique occurred when the interviewer asked questions which clarified body parts and sexual intercourse as soon as the child made any mention of them. The barrage of brief questions in the overwhelming majority of interviews revealed a remarkable preoccupation with peripheral detail, rather than attention to the content of the alleged sexual assault, i.e. on ‘what happened.’ There was very little evidence that a range of hypotheses had been considered prior to the interview, and none of the interviewers tested hypotheses that the child had been coached and/or was lying. Where ‘defence’ questions were seen, these tended to be put to the child in an accusatory manner. Questions were often complex and employed adult phraseology and language; some were leading, whilst others were double and treble in nature – especially once the child had made reference to an alleged sexual offence. The same formulaic routine appeared to be followed irrespective of the child’s age, developmental level, or the circumstances of the particular case.

CONCLUSION
The discussion about the relevance of ABE guidelines and the suggested deficiencies in current interviewing practice take place within a wider context where there has been a marked reduction in conviction rates for the most common sexual offences against children. For example, between 1985 and 1995 the conviction rate in cases of indecent assault on a girl under sixteen declined by 12%, and that in cases of unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under thirteen was down by 27%. 21  In cases of rape and the attempted rape of children under the age of sixteen years, Home Office figures show a decline in conviction rate from 36% in 1998 to 23% in 2002. 22

Clearly, a wide range of variables could well have influenced this proportionate decline (including increased reporting). However, one does wonder as to the extent to which poor interviewing practice is a contributory factor. As stated above, all of the 140 cases concerned alleged sexual abuse, and yet only 2 interviews reached the basic ‘benchmark’ of good practice for ‘the easy ones’ as recommended in ABE. As Professor Ray Bull noted after reading a draft of this article – ‘Why, some fifteen years on from the implementation of the guidance, do so many interviewers seem unable to put ABE fully into practice?’

Any enquiries or comments can be mailed to the author at:

brenda_robinson@ntlworld.com

Notes
1 For example D. P. H. Jones and M. G. McQuiston. Interviewing the Sexually Abused Child. Gaskell, 1988;
E. Vizard. ‘Interviewing children suspected of being sexually abused: A review of theory and practice’ in C. R. Hollin and K. Howells (eds) Clinical Approached to Sex Offenders and Their Victims. Wiley, 1991.
2 G. Davies, C. Wilson, R. Mitchell and J. Milsom, Videotaping Children’s Evidence: An Evaluation Home Office London, 1995.
3 M. E. Lamb, I. Hershowitz, K. J. Sternberg, B. Boat and M. D. Everson ‘Investigative interviews of alleged sexual abuse victims with and without anatomical dolls’ Child Abuse and Neglect 20 (1996)
4 A. R. Warren and L. S. McGough ‘Research on children’s suggestibility: Implications for the investigative interview’ in B. L. Bottoms and G. S. Goodman (eds) op cit at n 6
5 H.L. Westcott and S. Kynan, ‘Interviewer practice in investigative interviews for suspected child sexual abuse’ Psychology, Crime and Law 12(4) (2006) at p367-382
6 G.M. Davies, H.L. Westcott and N. Horan ‘The impact of questioning style on the content of investigative interviews with suspected child sexual abuse victims’ Psychology, Crime and Law 6 (2000) at p81-97
7 Op cit at n. 40
8 G. Davis, L. Hoyano, C. Keenan, L. Maitland and R. Morgan. An Assessment of the Admissibility and Sufficiency of Evidence in Child Abuse Prosecutions. Report for the Home Office by The Department of Law, University of Bristol, 1999 at p 46
9 Personal communication from ‘Warren’.
10 A. Wade and H. Westcott,  ‘No easy answers: children’s perspectives on investigative interviews’ in H. Westcott and J. Jones, Perspectives on the Memorandum. Policy, Practice and Research in Investigative Interview. Arena Publishing, 1997.
11 ibid
12 ibid at p 62
13 For an interesting discussion of some of the issues relating to younger children see T. D. Lyon, ‘Child witnesses and the oath’ in H. L. Westcott, G. M. Davies and R. H. C. Bull, op cit at n. 6
14 G. S. Goodman and A. Clarke Stewart, ‘Suggestibility in children’s testimony: implications for sexual abuse investigations.’ in J. Doris (ed) op cit, at n. 8. p 93
15 P. A. Ornstein, B. N. Gordon and D. M. Larus, ‘Children’s memory for a personally experienced event: Implications for testimony’ Applied Cognitive Psychology 6 (1992)
16 For a discussion of the associated issues see, for example, M. D. Everson and B. W. Boat, ‘The utility of anatomical dolls and drawings in child forensic interviews’ in M. L. Eisen, J. A. Quas and G. S. Goodman, Memory and Suggestibility in the Forensic Interview. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002.
17 Op cit at n. 3 at p 43
18 See for example the ‘traumagenic dynamics in the impact of child sexual abuse’ in D. Finkelhor A Source Book on Child Sexual Abuse. Sage Publications, 1986 at p 186.
19 L. Terr, ‘Childhood traumas: An outline and review American Journal of Psychiatry 148 (1991)
20 R. Fivush, ‘The development of autobiographical memory’ in H. L. Westcott, G. M. Davies and R. H. C. Bull op cit at n. 6 at p 65
21 D. Grubin, ‘Sex offending against children: Understanding the risk. Police Research Series Paper 99. Home Office, 1998.
22 L. Kelly, J. Lovett, L. Regan ‘A gap or a chasm? Attrition in reported rape cases.’ Home Office Research Study 293. Home Office, 2005.


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