Do’s and Don’ts For Interviewing Minors
If you are a seasoned investigator, you are likely accustomed to interviewing adult witnesses (if not, read our Introduction to Interviewing Techniques blog series). You may have interviewed hundreds of witnesses, and you know just how to craft relevant questions, establish rapport, assess credibility, identify deceptive behaviors, and get right down to the facts. It can be tempting to approach and interview minors relying on the same methodology you would with an adult witness.
While it is true you should treat minors with the same dignity and respect as you would other witnesses, it is important to be aware that, developmentally, children are not the same as adults. A young child may be confused by complex questions or words above their understanding. An adolescent-aged child may desire to respond to the adult asking questions in a way they believe is the “correct” way and overlook the importance of providing a truthful account of what they witnessed. In addition to risking an unproductive interview with the minor, your investigation may be challenged if you are not asking age-appropriate questions.
Here are a few Do’s and Don’ts to consider when preparing for your interview with a minor.
- Do consider the age and developmental abilities of the minor. Children can be limited in their ability to communicate their experiences, as they are less able to make sense of unfamiliar experiences, have a more limited vocabulary, and are less accustomed to engaging in conversations about past experiences than adults. When interviewing a minor, glean as much information beforehand about their developmental abilities. Once in the interview, be sure to assess their abilities during the rapport-building stage. Tailor your questions and expectations accordingly. Always be sure to provide clear instructions for how the interview will proceed and ensure the child understands before continuing.
- Do provide detailed instructions to set expectations for the interview. Before beginning the interview, make sure to provide a detailed, simple explanation about the interviewing process and its purpose. Provide guidance and instruction about your expectations for the minor’s responses. Do not simply say “I am here to talk about X thing you witnessed.” Rather, ensure they know you will be asking them questions because you do not know the answers and are not quizzing them for specific responses. Let them know it is okay to say “I do not know” or “I do not understand,” and make sure they understand it is important to only talk about things that really happened. The minor’s age may influence the number of instructions and the type of instructions that may be most helpful, so make sure you continue to assess the minor’s developmental abilities during this stage.
- Do encourage the minor to provide an account of a non-substantive manner before asking substantive questions. Encouraging children to give detailed responses about non-substantive matters enhances their ability to provide informative responses during the substantive portion of the interview. Essentially, you should give the minor an opportunity to practice giving a narrative of their experiences. Choose a neutral question such as, “What do you like to do for fun?” or “What did you do this morning?” After the minor answers, follow up with questions that will encourage a complete narrative of the event, such as, “And then what happened?” or “Tell me what happened, from start to finish.” Not only will these practice questions set the tone for the substantive portion of the interview, they will also give you an opportunity to further assess the child’s developmental abilities.
- Don’t choose an interview location filled with toys and artwork. As with any interview, ensure you conduct interviews with minors in a comfortable, private, and safe environment. You should avoid any spaces with toys or a surplus of imaginative paintings, pictures or sights. Children, especially younger children, can become confused if factual and fantasy elements are blended in their environment. It may be tempting to try to keep the minor calm and cooperative using toys or artwork, but doing so can run the risk of encouraging the minor to use their imagination, rather than their memories, to answer questions. Instead, choose a calm, safe and neutral area to conduct the interview.
- Don’t ask focused questions in the early stages of the interview. When interviewing a minor, you should attempt to prompt an unaided narrative from the child, as children’s memories can be influenced by the types of questions the investigator asks. Avoid questions like “Did X person do Y action?” Rather, after asking the child to provide a narrative of an event, ask open-ended questions like “What happened next?” or “Tell me more.” If you do find it necessary to ask a specific question to follow up on something the minor recounted in their narrative, make sure you use words the child used when providing their narrative to ensure you do not inadvertently influence their responses.
Interviewing minors presents a fresh set of challenges for even experienced investigators. The temptation to interview minors using adult methodology can hamper investigations and hamstring an investigator’s ability to defend their decisions. These challenges, however, can be minimized and negotiated by keeping the above Do’s and Don’ts in mind.