Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse
Ralph C. Underwager
IV. Interviewing children who are suspected of being sexually abused
A. The child witness
1. Young children are capable of providing accurate and useful information.
2. Jones and Krugman (1986) give an example of a three-year-old child who accurately
described her abduction, sexual abuse, and attempted murder.
3. The problem is that adults do not know how to let children produce the most reliable
information they can (Garbarino & Stott, 1989).
B. The memory of young children
1. The free recall of children, particularly if they are questioned soon after an
event, can be accurate. However, young children do not produce much in the free recall
2. Because of the phenomena of infant amnesia, adults and older children do not usually
remember specific incidents from their lives that happen prior to age three to four,
although they do have script memories.
3. Young children are more suggestible than older children and adults (Ceci &
Bruck, 1993, 1995).
4. Young children are likely to make "source monitoring" errors (Ceci,
Loftus, Leitchman, & Bruck, 1994; Johnson, Hashtroudi, & Lindsay, 1993).
a. A source monitoring error is when people mistake events they have thought about,
dreamed about, or been questioned about for memories of real events that have happened.
b. Preschoolers appear to be vulnerable to source attribution errors when they are
repeatedly encouraged to think about or talk about events that never occurred.
5. Very young children cannot use one object as a representation for another
6. Several facts concerning child witnesses can be said to be generally accepted in the
scientific community (Ceci & Bruck, 1993)
a. There appear to be significant age differences in suggestibility, with preschool
children being more vulnerable to suggestion that either school-aged children or adults.
b. Children can be led to make false or inaccurate reports about very crucial,
personally experienced central events.
c. Children sometimes lie when the motivational structure is tilted towards lying.
d. Extreme statements (e.g., children never lie vs. children are incapable of getting
it right) are not supported by credible and reliable scientific data.
e. Even preschoolers are capable of recalling much that is forensically relevant.
C. General principles of the investigatory interview
1. The goal of the interview of a child suspected of being sexually abused is to obtain
2. The problem is not that children cannot give reliable information but rather that
adults do not know how to enable them to produce the information they are capable of
3. The free recall of children may be fairly accurate, but they recall less than do
adults. The less information the child gives in free recall, the sooner the interviewer
may become frustrated and then may turn to using leading questions and coercive
4. Contamination can occur when the child's recollections become altered through poor
interview techniques (Ceci & Bruck, 1995; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990; Wakefield
& Underwager, 1988, 1994a).
5. The child's memory of an actual experience may be significantly altered by the
questioning about the incident and the child may even develop a subjectively believed
memory for events that never happened (Ceci & Bruck, 1995; Ceci, et al., 1994; Loftus
& Ketcham, 1991; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990). There is little or no correlation
between subjective confidence and the accuracy of an account of a past event (Brainerd,
Reyna, & Brandse, 1995).
6. The primary issue is not whether or not the child is lying. The issue is the level,
nature, extent, and effects of adult social influence upon young children.
7. Although repeated and/or suggestive interviews and flawed investigations do not mean
that a child has not been abused, they make it very difficult, if not impossible, to sort
out what, if anything, may have happened.
8. The issue is the level, nature, extent, and effects of adult social influence upon
young children. It is through adult social influence that a child can make statements of
sexual abuse that may not be true. The child is unlikely to be an active participant when
a fabricated allegation is developed.
9. Poorly conducted interviews make it very difficult, if not impossible, to sort out
what, if anything, may have happened.
10. Example of a bad interview from the McMartin case
Q Do you think, do maybe-I'll tell you what. Maybe you could show me with this, with
this doll (putting hand on two anatomical dolls, one naked, one dressed) how the kids
danced for the naked movie star.
A They didn't really dance. It was just like, a song.
Q Well, what did they do when they sang the song?
A They just, went around singing the song.
Q They just went around and sang the song?
A (Nods head up and down.)
Q And they didn't take their clothes off?
A (Shakes head negative)
Q I heard that, I heard from, several kids, that they took their clothes off. I think
that (classmate's name) told me that. I know that (second classmate's name) told me. I
know that (third classmate's name) told me. (Fourth classmate's name) and (fifth
classmate's name) all told me that. That's kind of a hard secret, it's kind of a yucky
secret to talk, of-but, maybe, we could see if we could find -
A Not that I remember.
Q - another puppet. This is my favorite puppet right here. (Reaching, picking up and
putting on the bird puppet.)
A I get to be that puppet.
Q You wanna be this puppet? Okay. Then I get to be Detective Dog.
A (Makes a sound.)
Q Okay, let's see if we can figure this. Let's see.
A (Grabs the dog puppet's nose that the interviewer is wearing, using bird puppet's
Q Yeah. Let's be friends. Let's (unintelligible). I know that we're gonna figure this
out-all this stuff out right now. Okay, when that tricky part about touching the kids was
going on, could you (reaching for marker from can on the table, handing it to girl) could
take a pointer in your mouth and point, on the, on the doll over here, on either one of
these dolls, where, where the kids were touched? Could you do that?
A I don't know.
Q I know that the kids were touched. Let's see if we can figure that out.
A I don't know.
Q You don't know where they were touched?
A Huh-uh. (Slight of head, negative.)
Q (Unintelligible.) Well, I (unintelligible) some of the kids told me that they were
touched sometimes. They said that it was, it kinda sometimes it kinda hurt. And sometimes
it felt pretty good. Do you remember that touching game that went on?
Q Okay, let me see if we can try something else and -
A Weeeeee. (Spinning the bird puppet on right hand above her head.)
Q Come on bird, get down here and help us out here.
Q (Girl's name) is having a hard time talking. I don't wanna hear any more
"no's." No, no, Detective Dog and we're gonna figure this out.
A No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. (To musical
cadence, spinning bird puppet over head.)
Q Do you wanna not play with the puppets? Would you rather talk to me directly? Is that
easier for ya?
Q Okay. How can I help you?
A (Makes sound.) gosh.
Q (Girl's name), look at me! (Putting puppeted hand on bird puppet.) How can I help you
get rid of those yucky secrets? How can we help you to tell them, so they can go away and
not bother you any more? What would be the best way that we could help you do that? I
don't think the puppets are working really well. And I think that you're real scared to
tell. And I understand why you're scared. 'Cause I heard all about the threats and all the
tricks that he tried to make the kids be scared so they wouldn't talk. Those were all
tricks, they were lies. They weren't true. None of those things happened to anybody. And
none of that stuff that happened at school were the kids' fault. That was all the it,
Ray's fault, it wasn't the kids fault. And I know the kids are scared to talk about it,
but I need you to tell me. How can I help you get rid of those yucky secrets? What's the
best way for me to help you do that?
A (Looks upward with pointer dangling from mouth.) (Cody, 1989, p. 28.)
D. Specific problems in interviews
1. The interviewer is convinced about what happened before the interview begins. The
interviewer who expects to find abuse is apt to ask questions in a way to confirm his or
her hypothesis (Ceci & Bruck, 1995).
2. The interviewer ignores the pressure felt by the child to conform to what the child
believes the interviewer wants. The pressure to give some form of answer may result in
demand characteristics to which children have little resistance.
3. The interviewer reinforces selected responses of the child.
a. A child is told that she is brave and that "Mommy will be so proud of you for
telling the scary secret" or a child is told that he can play with a special toy or
go for a treat after he tells about the abuse.
b. Children have been promised or given candy, food, beverages, and toys if they
cooperate and answer the questions.
4. The interviewer does not make it clear to the child that it is all right not to
answer a question if the child does not know the answer.
a. Children will give answers to bizarre, unanswerable questions. In a study by Hughes
and Grieve (1980), 5- and 7-year-old children gave answers to very bizarre questions, such
as "Is red wider than yellow?"
b. The pressure to give some form of answer and to discourage "don't know"
responses may result in demand characteristics to which children have little resistance.
5. The interviewer ignores responses that don't fit the interviewer's preconceptions.
6. The interviewer encourages a child who does not say anything in response to
questions to "pretend" with puppets or dolls.
7. The interviewer begins the interview with good touch/bad touch questions and
drawings where the child identifies body parts. This tells the child what will be expected
to be discussed in the interview.
8. The interview is not videotaped or audiotaped. A videotape is the only means whereby
the procedures and data obtained during the interview can be fully documented (Lamb, 1994;
McGough, 1995; Myers, 1994; Raskin & Yuille, 1989; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990;
Wakefield & Underwager, 1988, 1994a)
9. Procedures with doubtful or nonexistent reliability and validity are used in the
interview. These unsupported procedures include drawings, projective tests, and anatomical
a. Neither the anatomical dolls nor their use are standardized or accompanied by
b. The use of the dolls can provide a modeling effect and, as they are often used, can
encourage the child to engage in fantasy.
c. Very young children cannot use one object as a representation for another
1995). These studies falsify the use of the dolls as demonstrative aids.
d. There are no data supporting a differential behavior of abused and nonabused
children when the dolls are used to assess sexual abuse. The studies that claim to show
differences have major methodological shortcomings (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995; Skinner
& Berry, 1993; Underwager & Wakefield, 1990, 1995; Wakefield & Underwager,
1994a; Wolfner, Faust, & Dawes, 1993).
e. We recommend that the dolls not be used. They are controversial and they are not
generally accepted in the scientific community.
f. There are similar problems with books and drawings.
10. Disclosure-based play therapy is used to draw conclusions about abuse.
a. There is no scientific evidence showing any efficacy or utility for play therapy
with sexual abuse victims (Campbell, 1992a, 1992b).
b. The sessions may focus on reenactments and discussions of the abuse and the behavior
of the child in the play therapy sessions is used to form conclusions about abuse. Play
therapy may encourage false allegations (Campbell, 1992b).
c. A major difficulty is the unexamined assumption that play reflects reality whereas
for children play is fantasy (Bretherton, 1984).
d. The therapist providing the therapy may confuse the therapy and investigator roles.
E. General guidelines for appropriate interviewing
1. Be aware of your own biases and try to explore all possible hypotheses about what
may have happened rather than focusing on just one. Debiasing procedures have been
recommended by a number of decision theory researchers (Arkes, 1991)
2. Conduct the interview in a comfortable room which does not look like a business
office or doctor's office. Keep distracting toys out of sight.
3. Do not sit on the floor with the child. Sit in a chair and ask the child to sit in a
chair. Children know adults are adults and if an adult suddenly begins behaving in strange
ways the child may perceive it as coercive.
4. Interview the child alone. The presence of another person may induce bias,
distortions or omissions in the child's account. The error can be in either direction.
5. Begin by establishing the relationship with the child, getting an impression of the
child's level of development and capacities, and establishing the child's expectations for
what is going to happen in the evaluation. Ask neutral questions regarding age, school and
friends before discussing the events surrounding the alleged abuse.
6. Make it clear to the child that it is all right not to answer a question if the
child does not know the answer. Tell the child to say "I don't know" and "I
don't remember" rather than trying to say what he thinks the interviewer might want
to hear. It may help to practice with a question such as "Did the doctor who
delivered you wear glasses or not?
7. When the child is comfortable, ask open-ended nonleading questions (i.e., "Tell
me about your father"). It may take longer to get useful information but the
information obtained is much less likely to be contaminated.
8. Aim toward encouraging the child to provide a free narrative account by asking
open-ended questions. The free recall of a child is as accurate as that of an adult; the
trick therefore is elicit it and not to alter it through suggestive, leading questions.
Open-ended questions can be repeated a number of times.
9. Do not interrupt the child's narrative with questions.
10. If closed questions must be asked, only ask them at the end after first attempting
to get a narrative from the child through open questions.
11. Avoid repeating questions other than open-ended. When an answer is ignored and a
direct question is repeated again and again, the child learns what he is expected to
12. Proceed from the most general aspects to the more specific. Explore specific areas
after the child has mentioned them first.
13. Do not encourage make-believe by saying things such as "let's pretend you are
in your bedroom . . ." or "let's pretend this doll is you . . ."
14. If the child has difficulty providing specific details, try using nonleading
mnemonic devices. For example, ask the child to view the alleged incident from the eyes of
15. Use invitational statements in order to get more details from the child such as,
"And then what happened?" or "Would you please tell me everything you
remember about that?"
16. Throughout the interview, be alert to the cognitive developmental level of the
17. Throughout the interview, test for alternative hypotheses.
18. Do not ask the child to remember what he said to others-parent, social worker, or
police-a couple of days ago. This request means that you are confusing the child between a
prior conversation and the reality of a prior event of abuse.
19. Minimize cues given to a child about what he is supposed to say. Requests for
details should be about events already disclosed by the child.
20. Use a neutral, friendly tone throughout and avoid pressure or coercion to give a
desired response and selective reinforcement of certain types of responses. A frequent
subtle cue to a child as to what the interviewer wants is the repetition of a question
when the child has already answered but not in the desired direction.
21. Be aware of your own tolerance for ambiguity and frustration level. Remain calm and
don't show irritation when the child is not responding as desired.
22. Conduct the interview in a way that does not contribute to the emotional trauma of
the child. Know when to stop interviewing. Grilling, coercion, repeated questioning when a
child gives a negative response or says "I don't know" tells the child that he
is not producing what the adult in authority wants.
23. At some point in the interviews, inquire about possible influences upon the child
that may have taken place prior to the interview. This is important both in the case of a
child who relates sexual abuse and with a child who recants an earlier story of abuse.
24. At the end of the interview, explore the child's susceptibility to suggestion.
25. Videotape or audiotape all interviews from the beginning. This provides for fully
documented interviews and an accurate account of who said what can be transcribed.
Videotape also permits examination of some of the nonverbal cues that may be present.
26. Minimize the number of interviews. (However, take the time needed to do a thorough
and reliable assessment.)
27. If there is time pressure, as there may be if a choice about the safety of the
child must be made, get as much reliable information as you can, and make the choice.
28. A promising technique, Cognitive Interviewing, has produced a number of research
studies suggesting that it improves the accuracy of information (NIJ, 1992; Powell &
Thomson, 1994). Those techniques that appear helpful are given below.
a. Give four instructions to prepare the child. Practice these answers by asking
questions about an event that occurred in the waiting room or one that you both
participated in or observed.
i. It is all right to say you do not know an answer but do not guess or make anything
ii. If you do not want to answer a question, that is all right. Just tell me.
iii. If you do not know what I mean, please tell me.
iv. If I ask a question more than once, you do not have to change your answer. Just
tell me what you remember the best you can.
b. Reconstruct the circumstances. You may use pictures, favorite toys, and familiar
objects to assist a child to picture the circumstances, persons, and feelings surrounding
the alleged event(s) you are seeking information about. Then seek a free narrative recall
with the instruction just to tell you everything that happened, including even little
c. For children who are old enough, backward order recall appears to be more effective
in allowing for accurate information to be produced. Recall the events in backward order
beginning with the end, then the middle, and then the beginning. After each response, ask
"What happened right before that?"
d. Also for children who are old enough to understand this instruction,
ask the child to describe the incident from a different perspective, that is, as if
someone else were watching, what they would have seen.