*This article is part of IPS’ August focus on teambuilding and its impact on public safety.*
By Dr. Michael L. Beshears, professor of Criminal Justice at American Military University
Investigating alleged child abuse requires strong teamwork among police, social service personnel, medical personnel, and teachers. While all these professionals have an important role in identifying abuse, the most effective teamwork involves coordination that allows each professional to act within his or her area of expertise.
For example, teachers and medical personnel have a duty to report to the police and social service personnel when a child displays behavioral and/or physical indicators typically associated with abuse. However, during the process of evaluating if abuse has happened, teachers and medical professionals must leave the investigation and questioning to professionals trained in proper interviewing techniques of children.
If a child is subjected to too many questions early on, it could lead to suggestive thoughts being inadvertently implanted in the child’s memory. The child may actually begin to believe the suggestive event happened, even if it did not.
Police Interviews of Children
One of the most emotionally difficult tasks for police officers is to interview a child and probe for answers pertaining to allegations of abuse. Working with social service personnel, police investigators attempt to elicit an accurate and thorough record of the alleged abuse from a child who might have been victimized. The officer must conduct a proper interview to ensure that a thorough record is taken while not causing further emotional harm is caused to the child as a result of the interview.
[Related Article: Tips for Investigating Cases of Child Sex Abuse]
A poorly conducted interview may distort the entire investigation. Part of this distortion can happen because children typically want to please those they perceive as being in positions of authority. A child may agree with a statement for the sole purpose of receiving approval from the interviewer. This is not because the event actually occurred, but because the child wants to please the authority figure. Children usually do not comprehend the severity of agreeing with false suggested events.
The Dangers of Untrained Questioning
Those not trained to interview children, even with the best intentions, can easily distort the investigation. Many teachers and medical professionals attempt to question a child in order to confirm abuse rather than investigate abuse.
Due to their lack of training, these professionals typically use repeated and leading questions, which should be avoided when interviewing children. For example, preschool-aged children are prone to agree with repeated leading questions. Likewise, untrained interviewers may be unaware that children seldom do well when asked to tell events in the narrative, as they often drift off topic and are easily distracted.
In addition, professionals without proper training may not realize that yes and no questions are not advisable to use with children. Often there are issues with children not understanding the question(s) and a young child may simply respond yes or no to a question with little thought to the actual question(s) being asked. If specific questions are needed to obtain more details from a child, it is advisable that they be posed as open-ended questions.
[Related Article: Law Teaches Children to Disclose Sexual Abuse]
In conclusion, while teamwork is vital to identifying potential cases of abuse, once an incident of child abuse is suspected, the interviews must be conducted by trained professionals. This will not only ensure child safety, but will help ensure investigations are not impeded.
About the Author: Dr. Michael L. Beshears earned two baccalaureate degrees one in psychology and another in criminal justice from Drury University. In addition, he earned two graduate degrees one in criminology from Indiana State University and another in health services management from Webster University. He earned his Ph.D., in Business Administration with a specialization in Criminal Justice from Northcentral University. He is a retired Senior Noncommissioned Officer in the U.S. Army. His 22-year active duty military career included various roles and positions. He has assisted with various types of investigations working with different agencies military and civilian. He also has an extensive background in emergency medicine and intensive care medical treatment, as a combat medic, emergency medical technician, and licensed practical nurse. Mike is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at American Military University & American Public University and is full-time faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies. You can contact him at michael.beshears(at)mycampus.apus.edu.