And during this stage of the questioning process, children can actually be just as accurate as adults. However, they still commonly miss many details.
Then, once children are finished retelling the event in their own words, investigators may pose open-ended questions. This portion of questioning tends to generate the most reliable responses since they are not presumptive. For instance, “What happened next?”
Some investigators might also turn to option questioning, in which children are pushed to pick between two scenarios. One example of this might be, “Was the woman short?” Still, though, these questions may lead children to respond with inaccurate details when they are not sure of the answer.
Finally, if child witnesses are refraining from opening up and investigators are struggling to understand the situation, they may turn to leading questions. These ultimately guide the children by suggesting details that have not already been mentioned. But, this strategy is also often ineffective since children tend to go along with the interviewer’s suggestion– even if it is inaccurate.
Reformed Questioning Protocol
In turn, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) actually developed an evidence-based questioning protocol meant to help interviewers best question child witnesses.
The new protocol was developed based on a study including one hundred child witnesses who were allegedly abused. It also took into consideration child development, linguistic capabilities, suggestibility, the effects of trauma and stress, and more.
The guideline essentially encourages interviewers to first introduce themselves and explain the circumstances of the interview. Then, interviewers are advised to build rapport before explaining the ground rules of the questioning. For example, interviewers should clarify, “If I ask a question, and you don’t know the answer, just tell me, ‘I don’t know.'”
Next, child witnesses will enter what is known as the “substantive phase,”– where interviewers should refrain from suggestive or leading prompts and focus on open-ended questions in order to gather more accurate information.
Finally, after a child witness has detailed an event and an alleged perpetrator, they might be subjected to a photo lineup. Research does show that children as young as six years old can be just as accurate as adults in properly identifying a suspect.
However, if a lineup does not include a known target, children are actually much more likely to falsely identify a perpetrator. This is likely because children feel pressured to make a choice and do not realize the weight of a potential false identification.