Interviewing Vulnerable Victims

Child victims can pose unique challenges to a sex-crime investigation, as they may not have the verbal skills to convey what happened to them. As noted in Chapter 8, several allegations of sexual abuse in daycare settings were made in the 1980s. In Focus Box 9.1, some of those cases are presented. Most noteworthy, these cases were overshadowed by poor interviewing techniques and, subsequently, an inability to determine actual guilt or innocence. This brought attention to the lack of guidelines that existed when interviewing vulnerable victims, which include children, elderly adults, and those with special needs. More specifically, interviewing children when sexual allegations were made was difficult because of their suggestibility and the need to balance the victims' and the alleged offenders' legal rights. Since these cases, many improvements have been made in establishing guidelines for interviewing children and other vulnerable victims.

Focus Box 9.1 An Overview of Daycare Abuse Cases

The McMartin Pre-School Case (1986): In Manhattan Beach, California, a criminal case was made against Ray Buckey and his mother for sexually abusing children in a satanic ritual. Neither resulted in a guilty verdict, as evidence was lacking.

Fells Acres Day School (1986-1987): In Malden, Massachusetts, allegations of sexual abuse were made by one child against Gerald Amirault, the owner's son. Later, several other children made allegations against Violet, Gerald, and Cheryl Amirault. Violet had been running the daycare for two decades. Her son, Gerald, also worked at the school as a bus driver and handyman. Violet's daughter, Cheryl, also worked at the school. At trial, the children were allowed to provide testimony in the courtroom; they were placed where the jury could see them but the defendants could not. All defendants were found guilty and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. After serving eight years in prison, a new trial was granted because of the children's testimony allowed during the trial for Cheryl and Violet, which violated the defendants' right to face their accusers. Gerald's appeal was denied. Two years later, the judge reinstated the conviction and vacated the order for a new trial. In 1997 a rehearing was ordered again; however, Violet died of cancer. the rehearing for Cheryl never occurred. Cheryl agreed to not discuss the case with others and not to profit from it in exchange for the judge agreeing she would not return to prison to complete her sentence.

Source: (Possley, n.d.)

Wee Care Nursery School (1988): In Maplewood, New Jersey, Kelly Michaels was convicted of 115 counts of sexual abuse against 20 children. She denied all accusations, waived her Miranda rights, and passed a polygraph. the investigation continued. During the trial, the judge questioned the children in his chambers on closed-circuit television. He played ball with them, held them on his lap, and whispered in their ears. Kelly was convicted and received a 47-year sentence. She served five years before she successfully appealed the case because of the way the children were questioned by the judge. Kelly was released, and the prosecutor dropped all of the charges.

Source: (Frontline, 1998)

In 1999, important legislation provided for special measures to be taken when handling child testimony and testimony from other vulnerable witnesses (Bull, 2010). This was the 1999 Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act passed in England and Wales, which included the following measures:

  • • The use of screens that prevent the witness from seeing the defendant.
  • • A live television link between the court and the witness.
  • • Use of a video-recorded investigation interview conducted by the police when the evidence was collected in accordance with best evidence standards.
  • • Access to an intermediary (i.e., trained advocate) at court or during the police interview.
  • • Access to aids in communication (e.g., communication board, which is a board that includes pictures and/or symbols to assist in communication) (Bull, 2010).

Critical to conducting an appropriate interview was the development of guidelines that were based on the results of many psychological studies (Bull, 2010). Experts in the field and researchers suggest employing the phased approach, especially when working with vulnerable victims. This has four phases, with each phase occurring only after the previous phase is complete: (1) establish good rapport, (2) obtain as much free narrative as possible, (3) ask questions of the right type and in the right order, and (4) have meaningful closure (Bull, 2010).

The first phase, establishing good rapport, involves discussing topics that are of interest to the witness and are considered neutral. This phase should also include establishing good communication with the witness, making him or her comfortable. It is critical during this stage to reassure the witness that it is acceptable to answer questions with a "don't understand" or "don't know" or "can't remember" response, when that is the case. This is especially critical if the child has low IQ or a learning disability, as these children may give inaccurate information otherwise (Bull, 2010).

The second phase, obtaining as much free narrative as possible, involves asking the witness to provide as much information about the incident as they remember. This should not involve interruptions from the interviewer, who should make statements, such as "tell me more about that." Some vulnerable witnesses such as elderly adults or children with a low IQ, will provide less information than others. Thus, for some individuals, the questioning phase becomes critical (Bull, 2010).

The third, questioning, phase should begin with open questions, which are questions that are based on information that the witness provided in the narrative stage (Bull, 2010). For example, if a witness states during the narrative that a woman appeared in the window of a nearby apartment after the incident, the interviewer can ask, "what did the woman look like?" After open questions have been asked, specific questions are asked. These questions typically seek additional information or clarify information already provided and assist the witness to understand what is relevant. This typically involves asking what, who, where, and when-type questions. Below are examples of these:

  • • What was the man wearing when he entered your room?
  • • Who were you with at the playground?
  • • Where were you the first time you saw the scary man?
  • • When did you call for help?

After specific questions are asked, and only then, should forced-choice questions be asked. These include questions, such as:

• Did the offender cut your necklace off before or after the assault?

Research has shown that vulnerable interviewees may be yes-prone or no-prone, that is always answering yes (or no) regardless of the correct answer (Matikka & Vesala, 1997). Such questions should be asked in an either-or format (Bull, 2010):

• Did he touch you under your clothes or on top of your clothes?

Rather than

• Did he touch you under your clothes?

Either-or questions are more likely than yes-no questions to yield an accurate response (Heal & Sigelman, 1995).

This phase of the interview is critical, as research has shown that the first two stages of interviewing (establishing a rapport and obtaining a free narrative) are conducted relatively well and adhere to these established guidelines. Few interviews that were assessed systematically, however, adhered to criteria established in the third phase: open questions followed by specific questions, and only afterwards using forced-questions (Davies, Wilson, Mitchell, & Milsom, 1995; Warren, Woodall, Hunt, & Perry, 1996). Research has found that interviewers who encouraged free narrative, followed by open questions, obtained interviews that appeared to reflect actual events (Craig, Scheibe, Raskin, Kircher, & Dodd, 1999; Wood & Garven, 2000).

The style of the interviewer also appears to have an effect on the interview quality (Bull, 2010). Research has found that a supportive style is superior to a businesslike or authoritative manner (Paterson, Bull, & Vrij, 2002). A supportive style involves an informal demeanor, smiling, eye contact, and introducing self with a first name. Those who used a supportive style yielded more correct free- recall, recall to open questions, recall to reflection questions (repeating back to the interviewee what he or she said), and recall to final prompt for "more information." The fourth phase, the closure phase, should:

[1] summarize the important information provided by the witness as much as possible in the witness' own words, having told the witness to intervene if any summarizing is incorrect, [2] answer any questions the witness has, [3] thank the witness and try to assist the witness leave the interview in as positive frame of mind as possible (e.g., by returning to the neutral topics discussed in the rapport phase) and [4] provide the witness with the interviewer's contact details (e.g. in case the witness decides to provide more information).

(Bull, 2010, p. 9)

In the U.S., researchers have found that training on how to conduct interviews with vulnerable witnesses is "very basic or non-existent" (Bull, 2010, p. 10). Sternberg, Lamb, Esplin, and Baradaran (1999) developed a scripted protocol, based on research findings. This was followed by several other studies in several countries (e.g., Orbach et al., 2000; Sternberg, Lamb, Orbach, Esplin, & Mitchell, 2001), which support the use of a specific protocol, including the following:

  • • More use of open questions.
  • • Less use of forced-choice questions.
  • • Fewer suggestive questions (i.e., those that imply a specific answer).
  • • More narrative prior to forced-choice questions (Bull, 2010).

Research has also found that the pace of the interview should be much slower for vulnerable witnesses (Milne & Bull, 1999). This includes the interviewer slowing down their speech rate, allowing extra time for witnesses to respond to the questions, providing time for the witness to prepare a response, being patient with slow responses, avoiding rapid-fire questions once the interviewee has responded, and avoiding interruption (Milne & Bull, 1999). Also, it is critical to not underestimate the ability of vulnerable witnesses to provide accurate information, as research has shown that when proper protocol has been followed, vulnerable witnesses are capable of producing accurate information (Agnew & Powell, 2004).

 
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