When children are interviewed in legal matters

Often we have client’s who wonder, why doesn’t the court want to talk to my child or why aren’t my child’s words taken seriously.  As we all know, even for adults, interviews conducted in a legal context are often a stressful undertaking for anyone who must go through the process, but this fact is especially true for children. Whether it be in a custody case, a criminal proceeding, or a civil dispute, PRISM programthe underdeveloped child mind can find it difficult to understand exactly what is happening or the reasons behind why they have been put in the position they find themselves (in this case, cross-examinations in court or undergoing stressful interviews, sometimes revolving around traumatic events). As a result of this, there is a heightened chance that children may not give accurate information due to the limited understanding of the stakes involved in these proceedings, the tendency of children to embellish when recounting events, or the reluctance to bestow information as a result of discomfort. Because of this the court is very careful when it interviews or listens to the desires of a child.

It is very interesting to learn how interviewers work to counter this issue. It is important for certain procedures to be followed when questioning children in order to minimize their discomfort and the strain put on them, which aids in maximizing the accuracy of the information obtained. Questioning techniques used for these cases can be divided into 4 categories; open-ended questions are generally phrased as a statement and require the child to search their own memory and give their own account of events. These tend to be broad statements such as, “tell me what happened next”, giving full control of the telling of events to the child. Focused questions (such as such as “what were you doing”) are direct questions linking back to specific details of events and the child to give further detail where it may be missing. Forced-choice prompts, such as “Were you alone with him?”, require a child to pick between already listed options or answer with yes/no. Leading questions, for example “She did _____, didn’t she?”, present information in question form which has not been previously given by the child.

We don’t question children at this law office but it is good to understand that the general consensus from experts is that any productive questioning session will compose mostly of open-ended, focused, established custodial environmentand forced-choice questions. This type of questioning is highly important for attaining reliable and useful information as it allows the child to tell their experiences how they actually experienced them, or how they remember them. While young children have the ability to accurately recount events, they are often still susceptible to suggestive phrasing and questioning, i.e. leading questions, which can cause information to be tainted or inaccurately conveyed when they are not given the ability to express their experiences in their words. For this reason, it is generally agreed that leading questions should be completely avoided in this setting in place of a more open line of questioning.

Forced-choice questions are also a topic of controversy in this field as they tend to not elicit much useful information due to the limited length of responses they receive. As opposed to open-ended questions, which prompt a child to not just answer a question, but tell an entire narrative of events, forced-choice questioning is often met with only a few choice words directly answering the question. While these can be useful in specific situations where a clear distinction of events if important, they are over-all not useful. While any of these lines of questioning are allowed, it is often vital if any useful information is to be attained that the child’s discomfort is minimized, which is often not the case with leading and forced-choice questions. When not given the appropriate amount of room to think for themselves, it is often the case that the ensuing discomfort could also lead to a lowered validity of information, or a heightened hesitance to answer questions at all. This is the reason why open-ended questioning is so important. Not only does it allow a child to give an accurate account, but it also eases the discomfort they may feel because they are not being pressured into giving any information that they are not ready to divulge, while simultaneously gently easing them into sharing more as they grow more comfortable.

The attorneys of Kathryn Wayne-Spindler and Associates are capable communicators and always quick to respond to your legal needs. Contact our Milford office at 248-676-1000 for information as to how we can address your specific needs. We help clients throughout Southeastern Michigan, including Genessee, Oakland, Livingston, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties, as well as Mid-Michigan in Clare, Gladwin, Ogemaw, and Roscommon Counties. Our experienced attorneys have counseled such clients in Milford; Hartland; Highland; White Lake; Commerce; Walled Lake; Waterford; West Bloomfield; South Lyon; New Hudson; Brighton; Howell; Ann Arbor; Holly; Fenton; Flint; Linden; Clarkston; Houghton Lake; Higgins Lake; Roscommon and many more local communities.

We regularly keep updated on important information that affects what we do in our legal practice. Much of the information above was attained from the following sources. For further reading on this matter, follow the links below. The Importance of Questioning Children in a Developmentally Sensitive Fashion,  Governor’s Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect: Forensic Interviewing Protocol (Pg. 17)