Protecting the children

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


     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 amazon.com. 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 serita_stevens@sbcglobal.net.

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.

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