Seminar on Child Sexual Abuse
Ralph C. Underwager
IV. General principles for conducting an unbiased interview
A. Several professionals have suggested how to conduct an unbiased evaluation with
nonsuggestive and noncontaminating interviews (e.g., Annon, 1994; Daly, 1991; Quinn,
White, & Santilli, 1989; Raskin & Yuille, 1989; Slicner & Hanson, 1989;
Wakefield & Underwager, 1988, 1994a).
B. 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. 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
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. Specific questions introduce more
error. (Poole & White, 1991). When a negative response is ignored and a direct
question is repeated again and again, the child learns what he is expected to answer.
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 a
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 child.
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
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.
C. Criterion Based Content Analysis/Statement Validity Analysis
1. This is a procedure for interviewing children suspected of being abused and for
analyzing the resulting interview. (See Köhnken & Steller, 1988; Raskin & Esplin,
1991; Rogers, 1990; Undeutsch, 1988.) 2. The procedure assumes that an account based on a
real memory of an actual event will differ in content and quality from descriptions of
accounts that are based on fabricated, learned, or suggested memory.
3. The procedure requires a relatively complete statement obtained as soon as possible
after the child has disclosed an incident.
4. It is not intended for eliciting the initial report when abuse has only been suspected
because of behavioral indicators.
5. The interview must be designed to obtain a free narrative and leading questions and
suggestions must be avoided, except at the end when deliberately used to assess the
child's susceptibility to suggestion.
6. The entire interview is tape-recorded and transcribed for later analysis.
D. Cognitive interviewing shows promise of increasing accuracy of accounts (Fisher &
Geiselman, 1988; Saywitz, Geiselman, & Bornstein, 1992).
E. Writing the report.
1. After conducting the interview(s), before drawing conclusions and writing a report,
obtain as much information about the child and the reported incident as possible. (For
example, the nature of the disclosure, the situation in which the allegations surfaced,
the personalities of the parties, the number of times the child has previously talked to
people about the alleged incident, and the nature of such contacts.)
2. Explore possible motives either to deny real abuse or to fabricate abuse. This is
particularly important with older children and adolescents.
3. Review the videotape rather than depending upon your memory. If possible, have the