During interviews with children or teenagers, it’s important to help them tell the truth without causing fear.

During interviews with children or teenagers, it’s important to help them tell the truth without causing fear. Image source: Unsplash user Dmitry Ratushny.

You’re four-feet tall, and towering over you is a large man with an air of authority, a uniform, and a gun. Worried you are going to be locked up, you don’t say anything, or you leave details out because you don’t want to get yourself or others in trouble.

Whether a child or teenager is a suspect, a witness, or a victim of a crime, the police interview room can be a harrowing place. According to FBI child forensic interviewer Stephanie Knapp, sometimes a child isn’t ready to talk and they often don’t tell everything they know. If you are that officer faced with interviewing a minor, your goal should be, first and foremost, ensuring that the young person feels safe and comfortable.

Children communicate differently, and if you aren’t comfortable engaging with a certain age group, it would be appropriate to have another member of your team conduct the interview. Also, keep in mind that the rights of the child or teen need to be respected at all times; parents must grant permission for interviews or a truth verification examination, and Child Protective Services should also be consulted. But as long as you approach the interview with empathy and sensitivity, you can reach across that void of anxiety and help a young person tell the truth.

Creating a Safe, Comfortable Setting

Most young people have never been inside a police station, and the environment can seem overwhelmingly chaotic and stark. A child-safe room with comfortable furnishings and friendly lighting is helpful. Many agencies have created special interview rooms for children with subdued colors and child-friendly décor—but without so many accessories that it’s distracting. Providing paper and pencils or crayons is appropriate since some children tell their stories in drawings. Helping a child feel comfortable could also involve offering refreshments, but never give a child any food or drink without asking a caregiver in case the child has food allergies.

The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention  (OJJDP) recommends that the room is equipped with audio/video recording technology, that all interviews are recorded, and that social workers or case investigators observe what is happening in the room. Their recommendation comes with the backing of many studies which show that recording these interviews allows others—including experts in fields such as child psychology—to view the exchange and offer opinions.

Conducting the Interview with Sensitivity

Children are keen observers and they ask a lot of questions, but they won’t communicate if they don’t trust you. Walking the child or teen through what is going to happen helps, and it’s also important to style your communication to the child’s age and culture. A six-year-old will have limited comprehension but a wild imagination, whereas a sixteen-year-old may be defensive. If this is a sexual assault or physical abuse case—especially where a parent is involved—it’s particularly important to take your time, don’t push for answers, and use words that are appropriate for their age group.

The OJJDP suggests using open-ended questions and says, “Encouraging children to give detailed responses early in the interview (i.e., during the rapport-building phase) enhances their informative responses to open-ended prompts in the substantive portion of the interview.” Once they feel comfortable and are open to providing you with details, they will be more willing to volunteer information about the specific situation at hand.

Overall, the interview process isn’t much different. CVSA Examiner Bill Endler states, “You would use the same question types that you would use with an adult, but you would just structure them more toward the child.”  For example, he mentions using control questions, which could focus on something fun, like what type of games the child likes to play. Bill adds, “Your relevant questions would be a lot shorter and a lot more on point.” He stresses that the questions need to focus on something the child can relate to and understand.

Using Truth Verification

On some occasions, children or teens are offered the opportunity (with parental approval and much discussion beforehand) to take a truth verification examination. Of course, no child should be coerced into taking a truth verification exam; it must be approved by parents or guardians, and the child must also agree.

A study conducted by Edinboro University of Pennsylvania researchers in 2003 concludes that the polygraph, in particular, isn’t useful for anyone under twelve-years-old.  Examiners found that “juveniles lacked cognitive skills and moral understanding to produce meaningful physiological responses to the various polygraph questions.” And the polygraph examination itself—which requires being hooked up to sensors for a lengthy period of time—can be overwhelming for children. Instead, investigators should consider the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer (CVSA®). Bill Endler—who was a polygrapher before becoming a CVSA Examiner—says the CVSA “is so much less intrusive than [the] polygraph. It is much more laid back. You don’t have all the wires and attachments and all that sort of thing on you, so it is a much easier process.”

The CVSA detects signs of stress in the human voice and uses only a microphone clipped to the child’s shirt—a much less scary process. According to Bill, there is no set age at which you can conduct an examination of a child, although he has conducted CVSA examinations on a child as young as eight. However, prior to the examination, the CVSA Examiner would have to qualify the child to make sure they know the difference between right and wrong and whether they understand the questions.

Because interviews with children are recorded, the recording can also be analyzed with a CVSA after the actual interview has taken place, thus saving a young person from the stress of the test altogether. As I’m sure you remember from when you were a kid, no child likes taking a test of any kind.

Law enforcement officers are committed to finding the truth without causing additional harm to subjects, especially children who have suffered abuse or committed some kind of crime. It’s a great feeling to tell that young person, “I know you are telling the truth, and here is how I am going to help you.” We can all make a difference in the life of a minor—no matter what the circumstances—when we listen and validate their words.

Please reach out to us at NITV Federal Services to learn more about our CVSA systems and training programs.