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Canada-wide child investigator survey


September 21, 2015
By Sonja Brubacher

Child witnesses in different parts of the country might have very different experiences with the legal system including, but not limited to, the investigative interview, a 2002 London Family Court Clinic report found.

“Child witnesses in Canada: Where we’ve been, where we’re going” was broad in scope and reviewed aspects of children’s participation throughout the legal process. One key operational challenge to better service delivery for child witnesses and victims was identified as the “unevenness of training for key players such as police and judges.”

Others have also concluded that child interviewing practices vary widely across Canada (<Brubacher, Bala, Roberts, & Price, in press>; ), probably in large part because child welfare services are primarily mandated through provincial and territorial legislation. Investigative interviewing is taught from evidence-based practice in some locales; however, many professionals interviewing children receive only general advice (e.g., information about building rapport, using open ended questions, not delivering suggestive information), which may not all have a basis in empirical evidence.

As such, the interviewing techniques taught to both police officers and child protection workers across the country demonstrate a high level of inconsistency. Since there is no standardized set of primary guidelines, there is often confusion or lack of knowledge of what exactly occurs, and what should occur, inside a conducted investigative interview.

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Among the recommendations in the London report was to develop a “standardized training and service delivery protocol” to address the inconsistencies. This suggestion need not imply that one single interview protocol, trained by a single group of trainers, be used by everyone. Such a monopoly risks impeding the process of continual learning and change driven by different perspectives from both researchers and practitioners.

Nevertheless, it is a laudable goal to set certain nationwide standards in the content of child interview training programs and protocols. As a starting point, we aimed to find out what was presently being taught to Canadian child interviewing professionals, by whom and where it takes place.

{Our goals and team introduction}

We created a survey asking police officers and child protection workers – the two groups of professionals most often tasked with interviewing children – about the guidelines and techniques they use, perceptions about their training and interviewing arrangements and the challenges they face. The aim of this research was not to single out ‘bad practice’ but strictly to provide information.

We hoped to alleviate some of the confusion or lack of knowledge about interview practices. Our goal was to create awareness about the degree of consensus and consistency in the interview techniques that ultimately influence child victims’ experiences and progression through the legal system.

We are a team of five researchers, clinicians, and trainers from different backgrounds, and have experiences with a variety of interviewing guidelines and protocols.

  • Academics Sonja Brubacher and Kim Roberts have diverse experience in research and interview training, both in Canada and internationally.

  • Barry Cooper is a researcher, clinician and member of the Forensic Alliance, which delivers training across the country and internationally.

  • Heather Price is a Saskatchewan academic who conducts research and delivers training.

  • Lynn Barry is currently working towards her PhD in social work and is a program consultant with the Canadian Child Abuse Association.

McKenzie Vanderloon (Psychology masters candidate) provided support in areas of recruitment, data collection, analysis and writing.

{Learning from experiences}

Potential participants were recruited via email containing a survey link. The survey was 16 questions. Some contained multiple choice responses but most were open-ended, permitting written answers with no restriction on length. All responses were anonymous and cannot be traced back to the individual participant.

Completed survey responses were received from 191 professionals who interview children. Police officers at all levels comprised 74 per cent of all respondents; 22 per cent were child protection workers from child welfare organizations and professionals working at child advocacy centres (CACs). Three per cent were from other agencies such as court services or hospitals and one per cent did not specify their occupation.

The number of responses obtained from each province and territory varied widely. Two-fifths of survey respondents work in Saskatchewan (41.8 per cent or 80/191), likely because the Saskatchewan Chiefs of Police openly supported the project. Further, most of the Saskatchewan police respondents reported being trained in the Child Forensic Interview course taught by a private organisation. This somewhat skewed the current data.

Relatively high response rates were also obtained from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories. The survey remains open in an attempt to elicit further responses from the remaining provinces and territories so that the final data can represent the entire nation – https://goo.gl/ZKXrZe (English) and https://goo.gl/bNUM49 (French).

{Training techniques: Specific guidelines and general advice}

Respondents were asked whether they used specific recognized interview protocol/guidelines, or conversely, received general advice about interviewing not embedded within a protocol structure. The types of protocols used by police, child protection and CAC workers who reported using a specific protocol (80 per cent) can be seen in Figure 1. The remaining 20 per cent who reported not using a specific protocol were relatively evenly distributed across police and child protection.

Aside from police trained by White Buffalo <1> in Saskatchewan, the interviewing protocols used were spread among the cognitive interview (), the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development protocol (<NICHD; Lamb, Orbach, Hershkowitz, Esplin, & Horowitz, 2007>), and the StepWise Interview Guidelines (<Yuille, Cooper, & Herv‚ 2009>). Child protection workers, and interviewers working at CACs were most likely to be trained on the StepWise guidelines.

Figure 1: Types of training received as a proportion of each profession

Some respondents (44 per cent) also offered details about any other general advice they received on how to interview children, with or without accompaniment to training with a specific protocol. The most common type of advice given was related to the interview itself. Examples included building rapport, using open-ended questions and not being suggestive.

Other advice was to use activities in the interview such as colouring or drawing family members. Advice about developmental considerations (e.g., how to engage a young child who is distracted or may not understand all the terminology), and safety planning (e.g., if child discloses information that may require a joint investigation) was also reported.

{Training providers}

Most respondents provided information about who provided their training (96 per cent). For police not trained by White Buffalo, the most common responses were national and local police colleges. The majority of child protection workers reported receiving their training from the Canadian Child Abuse Association (CCAA) or from academics.

Both police and child protection commonly reported receiving in-house training from colleagues. Other types of agencies mentioned by both police officers and child protection workers were professional consultants, provincial children’s aid societies and local police services.

{The interview}

We were also interested in identifying how interviews are typically conducted. We asked respondents whether they usually interview children alone or with another person in the room. Of those who responded to this question, 74 per cent reported interviewing alone and 26 per cent reported interviewing with another person.

Respondents were also asked about interviewing teams. The most common arrangement was a police officer conducting the interview and a child protection worker watching from a monitor in a separate office. Regardless of the arrangements, most individuals indicated that they were satisfied with who is present and how they participate.

The majority of respondents revealed that they were content because they felt it was most appropriate for the child. For example, responses included “easier for child to focus” for those who used individual interviews or “reduces chances child will have to be interviewed twice” for team interviewers.

{Biggest challenges}

Nearly all respondents answered a question asking about their greatest interviewing challenges. As shown in Figure 2, the most common were related to the child (38 per cent), regardless of profession. Examples included keeping the child focused, trying to get information from a child who is unwilling or unable (e.g., shy), trying to establish the veracity of statements from a child who provided inconsistent answers, the child’s age (e.g., the child doesn’t have the vocabulary yet to describe what happened), or children with atypical development impeding their ability to describe what has happened (e.g., communication disorders, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, etc.).

Challenges related to the interview itself were also frequently discussed. Common challenges regarding the interview were: struggling to use open-ended questions, not making leading statements and gathering enough detail when there are time constraints. Likewise, many respondents reported barriers between themselves and the child to be a concern, such as how to establish rapport and make the child feel comfortable. Also in line with these challenges were organisational level issues such as interview rooms that were not child friendly and lack of equipment to conduct a comfortable and effective interview.

From a legal standpoint, challenges included how the interview may be criticized based on the judicial system’s interpretation of how the child acts (e.g., child’s emotionality, consistency).

Some of the challenges interviewers reported including low confidence, lack of expertise due to infrequent exposure to interviews and not feeling emotionally equipped to conduct the interview effectively.

Challenges related to training appeared in response to numerous questions. Respondents’ statements referred to a dearth of training in general, a shortage of follow-up instruction and training failing to equip the interviewer to feel prepared to conduct an interview.

Figure 2: Types of challenges reported by all respondents

{Refresher training}

Respondents were asked whether they received any follow-up training. Of those who responded to this question (85 per cent), just over half reported they had none (50.3 per cent), and 10.6 per cent of the total sample indicated that they had never received any initial training.

Among the 48 per cent of respondents who did receive some kind of follow-up, the most common type reported by police officers was informal training (e.g., casual in-house exchange of experiences and advice among colleagues or from other consultants).

The most common follow-up provided to child protection workers was formal training (e.g., formal follow-up course or formal meeting with superiors who gave constructive feedback on a taped interview) and personal self-developments such as reading literature and taking courses on their own time.

Other types of follow-up reported by all interviewers included attending conferences and workshops (see Figure 3 for a representation of type of follow-up training by profession).

Figure 3: Types of follow-up training received as a proportion of each profession

Respondents were given the opportunity to state whether they would like more information on child interviewing. The most common response (32 per cent) was to learn more about alternative interviewing guidelines/protocols besides the one they presently used or were trained on.

Many desired occasional follow-up or refresher training (e.g., once a year or every two years). Training on evaluating the truthfulness of children’s accounts and how to handle inconsistent children were other specific topics frequently mentioned.

Finally, many respondents requested information and training on interviewing children with special needs (e.g., autism spectrum, fetal alcohol spectrum and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders).

{Lessons so far}

The current results have yielded new information and awareness on the interview practices used in Canada and have highlighted some of the challenges and needs of front-line interviewers. As expected, there is a lack of consensus nationwide on the strategies used for interviewing children, and in the frequency and delivery of training. This was shown through the varied responses in the types of interviews being conducted and differences in amount of training, from none to initial and formal follow-up training.

There were also a broad array of challenges reported, from knowing how to manage child factors such as reluctance and inconsistency, to organisational level barriers like having a child-friendly interview environment and attitudes towards training; addressing these may be a first step towards creating an atmosphere that has consistency regardless of a child’s location across the country.

{Over to you!}

We hope this interim report has been informative. Our survey is still open at https://goo.gl/ZKXrZe (English) and https://goo.gl/bNUM49 (French) if you would like to contribute to the growing body of knowledge on Canadian child interviewing practices and comparison across regions.

We want to thank everyone who took the time to complete our survey. For more information, or to have the survey links emailed to you/your organisation, you can contact Sonja Brubacher (s.brubacher@deakin.edu.au), Kim Roberts (kroberts@wlu.ca), Heather Price (Heather.Price@uregina.ca), Barry Cooper bcooper@theforensicalliance.com), or Lynn Barry (lynnb@ccaa.org).

<1>Only respondents from Saskatchewan trained in the Child Forensic Interview course reported using an interview protocol developed by White Buffalo, so this percentage is disproportionally high.

References

Brubacher, S. P., Bala, N., Roberts, K. P., & Price, H. L. (in press). Witness interviewing in Canada. Chapter to appear in D. Walsh, G. Oxburgh, A. Redlich, & T. Myklebust (Eds.), International developments and practices in investigative interviewing and interrogation. Vol 1: Victims and witnesses. Oxford, UK: Routledge.

Fisher, R. P. & Geiselman, R. E. (1992). Memory-enhancing techniques in investigative interviewing: The cognitive interview. Springfield, IL: C.C. Thomas.

Lamb, M. E., Orbach, Y., Hershkowitz, I., Esplin, P. W., & Horowitz, D. (2007). A structured forensic interview protocol improves the quality and informativeness of investigative interviews with children: A review of research using the NICHD investigative interview protocol. Child Abuse & Neglect, 31, 1201-1231. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2007.03.021

London Family Court Clinic. (2002). Child witnesses in Canada: Where we’ve been, where we’re going. Retrieved from http://www.lfcc.on.ca/CW_in_Canada.html

Roberts, K. P., & Cameron, S. C. (2015). Observations from Canadian practitioners about the
investigation and prosecution of crimes involving child and adult witnesses, Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 15, 33-57, DOI: 10.1080/15228932.2015.997611

Yuille, J.C., Cooper, B.S., & Herv‚ H.F. (2009). The step-wise guidelines for child interviews:
The new generation. In M. Casonato & F. Pfafflin (Eds.), Pedoparafile: Psychological perspectives, forensic psychiatric (published in Italian). Italy: Franco Angeli.


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