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Top Ten Tips for Interviewing Children for Custody Evaluations


Kathleen Clark, PhD, Galion, Ohio, Leslie M. Drozd, PhD, Newport Beach, California, Jonathan Gould, PhD, ABPP, Charlotte, North Carolina, Kathryn Kuehnle, PhD, Indian Shores, Florida, Mindy F. Mitnick, MEd, MA, Edina, Minnesota, and Philip M. Stahl, PhD, ABPP, Queen Creek, Arizona

1. Differences Understand the differences between clinical/therapeutic and forensic interviews. Clinicians without specific forensic training should not engage in forensic interviews. If an issue arises during the interview that requires training more specialized than basic forensic interviewing, report it to the proper agency or refer it to an expert in an appropriate area.

2. Sound forensic interviews Establish rapport, explain the interview purpose and discuss interview “ground rules.” Explain the limits of confidentiality and how the information obtained will be used in a way the child will understand. The interviewer should explain to the child that it is acceptable to tell the interviewer they don’t know the answer to a question or don’t understand it. Furthermore, they should correct the interviewer if s/he is mistaken. The interviewer should provide children with practice responding to open ended prompts when describing their experiences.

3. Understand child development In conducting forensic assessments of children, it is critical that the interviewer determines any factors that may impinge upon the child’s ability to comprehend, recall accurately and report past events. To understand this, the interviewer should be trained in child development including memory, suggestibility, language and communication.

4. Truth or lie The interviewer should let the child know that they will not be able to help her/him answer questions and that it is important to tell the truth. Ask questions early in the interview that will determine if the child knows the difference between the truth and a lie.

5. Open-ended questions Research has shown that open-ended questions produce better results than specific “risky” questions. Examples of open-ended questions include: tell me, what, where, when, how. Examples of risky questions to avoid, if possible, include: why, did, was, can you tell, or.

6. Follow-up Follow up with questions such as “tell me more” and “what happened next.” Avoid yes/no and forced choice questions unless necessary.

7. Ask one question at a time Wait until the child is finished responding before asking the next question or commenting on what the child has said. Avoid repeating the question, as this may make the child feel that her/his first answer was wrong.

8. Understand admissibility Evaluators should be familiar with the Federal Rule of Evidence 401 and similar rules of evidence in their state, as well as, case law, including but not limited to Frye, Daubert, and Kumho. Forensic practice is specialized and requires specialized training and knowledge.

9. Remember these are children Speak to a child in words s/he will understand. Avoid abstract, vague and legal terms. Some children may be more open and communicative if they are allowed to play or draw as they are interviewed.

10. Respect the children Listen and make sure that you understand the child’s point of view apart from the view of the parents. Let them know that their views are important but they are not responsible for the outcome—their parents or the judge are.

Source: www.afcc.org

Visit the Complex Issues in Family Law Concerning Children page to view relevant books written by Dr Stahl.