By Jean Reynolds

Your police training will provide you useful guidelines for conducting interviews with various groups of people with special needs. Experienced officers say that interviewing children is particularly challenging for a number of reasons, including confusion and fear. Careful preparation before the interview begins can help ensure that the interview will proceed smoothly and you will obtain the information needed for a successful investigation and prosecution.

Be aware that many children are eager to win the approval of authority figures. This means that the child you are interviewing might scrutinize you carefully to figure out what you want (or don’t want) to hear. Some children are exceptionally susceptible to coercion, suggestion, manipulation, and intimidation. Be sure to tell the child that it’s all right to say “I don’t know” and “I don’t understand.” Remember to give the child permission to pause the interview and correct you if any of your information is incorrect.

Choose the setting carefully. The child’s home may be a good choice for preschoolers and school-age children (unless the crime happened there). Preteens and teenagers may prefer a different setting.

Some agencies adapt a special room for interviews with children by decorating a wall with child-friendly artwork. When the room is used for other purposes, a curtain conceals the pictures. Furniture should be child-sized, and you should be sitting down yourself so that you’re at eye level with the child. Standing over anyone—especially a child—is intimidating.

It’s important to make children feel secure during an interview. Check that no one is eavesdropping, especially if you’re investigating an abuse allegation. A frightened child may fear reprisals and withhold information if the abuser is nearby.

Before you start your questions, tell the child what’s going on and why you need the information. Use simple words and short sentences.

Make sure the child is questioned only once and by only one person unless a follow-up interview is necessary. Never allow a series of adults to re-interview a child with the same questions. That amounts to making a child relive a traumatic experience, and some experts even consider it a form of abuse. A detailed and well-documented report will eliminate the need for multiple interviews that cover the same ground.

Be aware that many families use made-up words when they talk to their children, especially for genitals. A picture or doll can help clarify what the child is trying to tell you.

Child psychologists say that it’s especially important to understand that children may not be able to label or classify what has happened to them. An adult victim is likely to be outraged by a sexual attack; a child, on the other hand, may believe that adults are allowed to do anything they want.

Remember too that a specialized reasoning process called “magical thinking” is typical of children. They imagine themselves as the center of their existence and assume that they caused everything that happens around them. Professionals who work with children say it’s not unusual for a preschooler to say that everything would have been just fine if she had gotten a job, or to believe that a cruel punishment was justified. Patience and gentleness can go a long way toward helping a child process what has happened.

Sometimes a child’s testimony is an important component in a criminal investigation. If the child is interviewed skillfully, his or her testimony is much more likely to stand up in court. Remember to make a plan before the interview, take your time, and follow the guidelines you’ve been taught.