Protecting the children

Program trains detectives to help child victims find the words to describe their abuse


     Not every child will respond well to a forensic or investigative interview. His or her verbal skills might not be attuned enough and the younger the child the greater the need for other assessment tools. In addition, abusers often threaten their victims. Perpetrators may tell them that no one will believe them and that they will be taken away from their family for lying, that the abuser will hurt or kill someone in their family if they tell anyone, or that their confession may put the victimizer, who might be father or stepfather or some other beloved relative, in jail. It is important to deal with potential problems in a way that makes the child feel safe.

     One way to establish rapport with younger kids is to draw a picture of their face followed by family circles. Drawing the child's face indicates his importance and as the investigator sketches the child's family, information is gleaned about them as their names are written under the circles. Children over eight might find this exercise silly, but again it depends on their development level as well as their age.

     The large pad of paper that sits between the investigator and the child becomes the focus of conversation. While drawing, the investigator asks questions to determine the child's developmental level, his vocabulary, narrative ability and any hobbies he might have.

     Drawings will also sometimes prod the memory and increase the child's recall. If a child says he was attacked in the bedroom, the interviewer can then ask what the bedroom looks like and draw it. If the child corrects the interviewer, then the child has joined the process and his credibility has increased.

     These drawings corroborate the child's statement and provide evidentiary information as well as become part of the record. They take some of the intensity out of the interview because both the interviewer and the victim have something else to focus on. Should the child become distracted or uninterested in the process, the drawings can re-engage him.

Anatomical identification

     Anatomy identification follows. Using anatomically correct dolls helps establish the names a child victim uses for various body parts. These dolls come in all types of ethnic backgrounds so that the child can easily identify with them. First, the investigator should ask the child to study two anatomically correct dolls (a boy and a girl) and pick out the one that most looks like him. This aids the interviewer in determining the preschool or developmentally delayed individual's understanding and ability to distinguish his or her gender.

     Knowing that children often use different words for various body parts and meanings can vary, an investigator should then point to specific areas on the doll and ask the victim what they are called. Throughout the interview, the investigator should frequently check with the child to confirm that he is using the victim's "correct" name for specific body parts.

     Anatomical dolls also can show detectives things the child cannot express. It allows victimized children to distance themselves from the events so that the bad touch happens to the doll and not to them.

Good touch, bad touch

     Sometimes during this part of the initial interview, the victim may make a spontaneous statement that an investigator must follow up on. If not, the investigator should talk to the child about touch. Starting with good touches, the investigator might talk about touches that people like and ask the child if he/she ever gets any of those. The interviewer might say, "Tell me about the touches you like. Show me where they are."

     Then the investigator might ask, "Are there places where it's not OK for others to touch you? Are there touches you do not like? Can you point to them on the dolls?" Then he might ask, "Has anyone ever touched you in any of those places?" If the child responds "yes," then the investigator will say, "Tell me about it."

     Focusing on the abuse, the investigator would inquire if the child went to the doctor because "something bad happened" and ask the child if it was something he or she didn't like.

     Any "yes" or "no" answer should be followed up with a "tell me about that." This helps free recall rather than relying on recollection memories. It's important never to assume anything and to respect the child's disclosure process. Ask the child questions without repeating what you might have already been told. Let the child tell you in his own words.

The abuse scenario
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