Law enforcement learns how to interview child witnesses

Lawton_Although, police officers are trained to get information from suspects and witnesses, it may be a different process when it comes to getting information from a witness - or victim - who is a child. If the child does not understand their questions, or when the child is embarrassed or ashamed, it may be difficult to get the information they need.

Over the past week, some area law enforcement officials learned how to interview children who may have been abused at home, or by a caregiver. They were given information about physical and sexual abuse, along with working with children who have witnessed violence. This process is called "Cognitive Graphic Interviewing," a big term that means interpreting a child's thoughts in pictures. The pictures are shown to a child on a big piece of paper.

Detective Brad Davis practiced interviewing a four-year-old girl, and although he has covered countless crimes, this is a new experience for him. "All I've ever interviewed are suspects - perpetrators, stuff like that," said Davis. "I've never interviewed a child, so this is giving me great tools to put it my toolbox as far as how to conduct an interview - how to guide that child to the areas of concern."

The kids authorities practice with are volunteers. They haven't been abused, but the interaction helps the law enforcement officials practice getting information from children. "I really didn't have a clue on how you would actually interview a child," said Comanche County Deputy Thomas Brown. "I just thought you go in, ask your direct questions, get the answers and then go on about your business."

Program founder Ann Alquist observed those attending and helped the interviewers. Alquist was once a social worker, and tried being conversational with kids - tried being a friend. "I thought, if I can build up trust and just build up that they know me, and I'm interested in them, it's likely that they'll be more able to tell me about what might be happening in their homes, or to them," she says.

But, she says that trying to be their best friend didn't necessarily work - she says children keep secrets. "Unless you ask more directly about hurt that they've experienced, they're less likely to tell you about it," says Alquist. So, although making kids comfortable is important, it's just as important to ask them direct questions about, who they live with, what's in their room - questions that may gain children's trust before asking about potential abuse. "Then," says Alquist, "guide them sensitively to their bodies, and asking questions about if they've been hurt on their bodies, without suggesting that they have."

One of the steps in the process of getting kids to open up about abuse in the interviewing process is to ask the child to identify anatomy, to ensure the child uses their own vocabulary. "You really have to bring yourself down to that child's level," said Brown "You can't ask them these really big dynamic questions and expect them to understand what you're trying to get."

Alquist says helping a child identify abuse can change their lives forever. "When a child talks about the experiences that they've had, and the harm that comes to them, we likely have changed the trajectory of their lives," she says. She says abused children who talk about their experiences are six times less likely to abuse others when they become adults.

Cognitive Graphic interviews are recorded by cameras and microphones in the room where the interview is conducted, to be used as forensic evidence in court. This way, children aren't repeatedly interviewed about what could be a potentially traumatic experience.