Protecting the children

     Four-year-old Christian sat in the precinct playroom. He had been tearful and shaking uncontrollably when his mother brought him in. A few days ago, he'd returned from a visit with his dad, screaming obscenities, pulling down his pants, and walking naked around the house.

     The boy's mother suspected all was not right at her ex-husband's home. She brought her son in to police headquarters and insisted a pediatric sexual assault nurse examine him.

     The colposcope examination revealed a tear in the delicate tissue of the preschooler's anus and what appeared to be bite marks on his buttocks. The nurse bagged the underwear he'd come home in and took swabs of the bite area.

     Now it was the detectives' turn to sort through the evidence to see if they could make a case. Det. Matthew Tanks entered the room and sat at the table, as his partner Det. Sonya Dukmajian observed through the one-way mirror along with the staff psychologist. But Christian remained on the floor, rocking. He didn't even look up as the big guy entered.

     The first words out of Tank's mouth were, "Looks like something happened at your dad's. How many times did he rape you?"

     Outside, Dukmajian shook her head. "I bet the boy doesn't even know what the word rape means," she said to the psychologist.

     "Huh kid? You gonna tell me?" Tanks asked again as he met a wall of resistance. "We know someone hurt you. Who was it?"

     The distraught child pulled his sweatshirt hood over his face and rocked harder.

     As frontline professionals, detectives often deal with child abuse, but as the above example illustrates, unless they are trained and know how to talk to victims these cases may never be built or prosecuted.

     Fortunately, the five-day seminar, Finding Words, exists to train officials in Rapport, Anatomy identification, Touch inquiry, Abuse scenario, and Closure protocol (RATAC), which can be used to interview children not only about sexual abuse but any type of violent crime, neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse or felony animal abuse.

Building rapport

     After Det. Tanks's lack of success, Dukmajian came in, crossed her legs and sat on the floor so that she was eye level with the boy. She waited silently a moment, giving him time to feel comfortable and acknowledge her.

     Dukmajian thought she knew what she was doing, but trained only through her on-the-job observations of others, she still made mistakes.

     When the boy finally turned toward her, she asked, "Was your dad's pee-pee hard or soft?" Clearly the detective was asking if the boy's father had an erection but at his age, Christian was likely thinking about texture and responded "soft."

     Dukmajian started out correctly — sitting at eye level is less intimidating to a child — but she did not take the boy's developmental level into consideration and jumped into the questions without developing a rapport, the first step in the RATAC process. It's vital to develop rapport in the beginning for it is through this process that investigators can assess the child's development and establish a child's competence.

     "One of the biggest mistakes investigators make is assuming kids understand things as adults do," stresses Victor Vieth, a senior attorney with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse. "Ask a child 'How many times did it happen?' Even at the age of 12, my daughter does not have a grasp of numbers. She will say, 'It's been a billion times that you did that.' The proper way to ask is to say: 'Did this happen once? More than once?' Ask them to indicate on their hand."

     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

     Within the intense Finding Words class, students are asked to read numerous books and journals to help formulate a basis for their own questions and theory. However, reading is not enough; the practice of peer review and correction is also crucial. Students are first given a child to interview about a non-abuse event, such as a trip to the park, and fellow students critique their work. Students then split into teams and are given a fictitious abuse report and asked to construct a game plan for the victim interview. They must determine the child's developmental level, his or her attention span, what cultural barriers or blocks exist, and what alternative hypothesis they will develop during the interview. Diversity is stressed so that interviewers can properly respond to different cultures.

     Students learn that children communicate in three ways — language, behavior and emotion. All provide key information and reveal potential blocks to disclosure. For example, a child may say that nothing happened but his crying and hiding tell a different story.

     The way something is phrased clearly makes a difference. If an investigator should ask Christian, the victim from the example, how many times his dad touched him, he may answer none. Children are very literal. His daddy may never have touched him or he may never have touched daddy with his hands. Several versions of the question have to be asked. The interviewer has to rephrase the question and ask, "How many times. times did dad ask you to touch him and where?" The child may disclose he had been made to put his mouth on his father's privates.

     Law enforcement professionals are trained to avoid leading questions, but according to Finding Words, it's more important to avoid misleading or tag questions. For instance, asking, "Your dad touched your butt, didn't he?" is both a statement and a question, leading the child to say things he might not mean. Students of Finding Words are taught not to use these types of questions.

     If the child provides a lead, the investigator should follow through with another open-ended question. For example, the child might say, "He only does that when he's drinking" and the interviewer would then say, "Tell me about his drinking." Or, if child protective services wanted domestic violence explored, the interviewer might ask, "Tell me what happens when someone in your house gets mad or drunk."

     The RATAC process is semi-structured; one or more of the stages can be modified or eliminated depending on the age and maturity of the child. After all, a teen will not respond to the same questions that a 5-year-old will. Questions must always be structured with the child's developmental level in mind.

     Finding Words students are taught that no child should go to court alone, and that victim statements must be corroborated with other evidence. Since most interviews are videotaped, students learn by tearing apart the session line by line to locate any evidence that can confirm the victim's statement.

Finding closure

     Even with all the work to establish rapport, there still may be children fearful of disclosure. If that's the case, all the investigator can do is proceed to closure, the final step in the RATAC process. Sections of the Finding Words course are designed specifically for the process of nondisclosure. There are varying types of disclosure and various stages. Students are taught to recognize tentative language cues such as "might have, could have, probably, sometimes, and usually." And students are taught when to move to closure.

     Interviewing a child about abuse must be sensitively handled with an eye toward the child's developmental age and a compassion for the victim's reluctance to talk. Finding Words helps train detectives to put the child's needs first and handle victims in a way that ensures the perpetrators of illegal acts on children are brought to justice.

     Serita Stevens, RN, MA, CLNC, is the author of "The Forensic Nurse" available at The text describes cases where forensic nurses helped police solve crimes. In addition, the book will soon be adapted as a TV show on CTV in Canada. Stevens may be reached at

Bringing Finding Words to the nation

     The Corner House, an interagency child abuse evaluation and training center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, first began offering Finding Words in 1989. After beginning the training program, the organization documented a major increase in conviction rates among detectives who took the course. Later, Victor Vieth, a senior attorney with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse (NCPCA), proposed taking Corner House's model nationwide. The new program called Finding Words — based on the first child interview exercise — was overwhelmed with 400 responses at its first event in Savannah, Georgia, in 1998.

     Demand for the program was so great that the NCPCA set a goal to train half the nation by 2010. Of the 25 sought-after states, so far South Carolina, New Jersey, Indiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland have joined the program, while many other states have applied to be part of the three-year program.

     Professionals must submit applications as a team. Since prosecution of this type involves a team of people (a detective, prosecutor, child protection worker and forensic interviewers), Finding Words wants the entire team to apply. Investigators are trained in child development and how to phrase questions so that evidence can be found, while protecting the child's statements so they hold up in court. Prosecutors learn child sexual abuse cases can only be successfully built through a systematic team approach, because forensic interviewing must be both prosecution-and protection-focused. In addition, teams must determine together whether an incident will be prosecuted as a civil or criminal case.

     Those trained by Finding Words are qualified as expert witnesses since the seminar is based on years of research, reliable principals and sound methods. In Georgia, the appellate court rejected a defense claim that a deputy sheriff trained though Finding Words was insufficiently prepared to conduct a forensic interview. The court found the investigator, having taken a course specializing in interviewing child abuse victims, employed a known method. North Carolina judges concluded that Finding Words was the "'gold standard' for training in forensic interviewing."

     To start programs in your state, contact Grant Bauer by phone at (703) 549-4253 or by e-mail at