Questioning of Children by the Police

Questioning of Children by the Police by Ann-Christine Cederborg, University professor, Sweden

A study of 193 cases reported to the police

National Board of Health and Welfare. Sexual abuse of children 1999:2


The task of investigating whether or not sexual abuse has occurred is very complicated for all experts involved. In most cases there is a lack of evidence and the only ones who can say anything about what has actually happened are the aggrieved party and the suspect.

If a child is the aggrieved party, it can be extremely difficult for the child to describe what has happened, especially if the suspect is a close relative. It is undoubtedly also a difficult situation for the suspect, especially if he or she is innocent, since sexual abuse of children is considered an immoral offence in our society. The suspect may also come to be viewed negatively by those around him or her, irrespective of whether he or she is convicted for the crime. The actors within the judicial system have preferential right to interpretation when it comes to determining a child's juridical credibility. The role of the police is to fulfil the judicial system's requirements of producing detailed, veracious, coherent and clear accounts of sexual abuse through questioning the aggrieved party. Police questioning puts children in a situation in which they are not on an equal footing with adults. Their ability or failure to meet the judicial system's requirements of providing a credible account affects the legal procedure. Young children may, for example, have difficulty in answering questions which require clarifications about details or in revealing intimate details about themselves or suspects. The fact that young children have a limited ability to assert their perspective reduces their chances of being regarded as credible by the judicial system. Furthermore, very few cases concerning young children are tried in court. There is probably a risk that the accounts upon which prosecutors base their assessments of credibility build on statements which result from, for example, children's failure to understand the meaning of certain concepts but also on the fact that the conditions under which children are questioned are unfavourable to them. Thus the words children use in police interviews may come to symbolise an objective truth in the prosecutor's assessment of the account, rather than being clarified from contextual, interactive and development psychological perspectives.

To summarise, it may be noted that interview techniques which have been developed in Sweden to fulfil requirements of juridical stringency may have the consequence that children who are subjected to abuse have difficulty in doing themselves justice in the legal context. Thus children's accounts may be the weakest link in illuminating whether or not they have been subjected to sexual abuse. For the future, it is important that everyone with the task of interviewing children about suspected sexual abuse is aware that the interview technique they use, to a greater or lesser extent, affects the child's account. The leader of the interview should therefore aim - in as far as it is possible - to encourage the child to voluntarily give an account of any incidence of sexual abuse. It should preferably not be possible to interpret the child's account as having been influenced by the interview leader or by others around the child. If a child is confronted with, above all, suggestive, but also all too leading questions, the end result will not be the child's own account but an account based on criteria suggested by the interview leader. If, on the other hand, the interview leader has had a limited influence on the construction of the child's account, there is a greater chance that the experts who are to interpret the account will be provided with the best possible source of knowledge upon which to base their assessment. It is without question that experts in cases concerning sexual abuse of children have to decide on exceedingly complicated issues. This is especially true of cases in which the suspect denies having committed an offence and the child is at pre-school age and only gives a fragmented account of abuse. It is also fully understandable that lawyers and social workers have second thoughts about consulting psychological experts in these cases, with regard to the conflicting opinions on what constitutes a credible account among some clinical psychologists and witness psychologists. There are also different bases of understanding among witness psychologists as to how a credible account should be interpreted and understood. The conflict between different psychologists may also explain why lawyers hesitate to ask for psychological assessments in this kind of case. The Supreme Court has also declared that courts of law should not be too hasty in basing their decisions on pronouncements by expert psychologists. According to Swedish law the suspect should be acquitted rather than convicted if there is insufficient proof that a crime has been committed. However, the social services must take into account the social, mental and physical condition of the child before deciding whether, and if so which, social measures are necessary to provide for the best interests of the child in cases involving abuse. Since the interview with the child during the preliminary investigation does not always give so much in the way of useful information, it is especially important that the interviewer has a sound knowledge of children and interview techniques. There is a general consensus among the research community today that the quality of the information given by children is greatly influenced by the interviewer's ability to utilise existing knowledge of different interview techniques. An experienced interviewer can, in other words, help children to be invaluably informative. Several researchers also underline how important it is that the interviewer is realistically aware of children's abilities and ways of expressing themselves as a condition for receiving a competent account from the child. Knowledge of interview techniques etc. can be acquired both at a general and a more specific level. At the general level it is a question of acquiring information both about existing research results and about ongoing research, for example, about interview techniques. At the specific level it is about practical training in talking with children. In brief, practicians should bear in mind that investigation interviews are not a form of therapeutic dialogue but have the purpose of finding out whether the child has something to say about specific events. It is also important that the interviewer does not interrupt a child who is spontaneously talking about his or her experiences. From the point of view of legal security, it is helpful if the interviewer records the interview on video. Use of a questionnaire may prevent the interviewer from posing, above all, suggestive questions. The child should also be given the opportunity to be informed of why he or she is to talk with the interviewer without mention of who is suspected of doing what to the child. The information should be given in an open and inviting manner without the interview leader revealing the substance of the suspicion of sexual abuse. On the whole, information which the child has not provided himself or herself should not be brought up. The interviewer should use a language that is comprehensible to the child. I am convinced that all interviewers, through increased knowledge of the way in which the interview relationship can influence the outcome and through practical training in effective interview techniques, can improve children's ability to divulge more information themselves. I also believe that an interviewer who examines children's vulnerability as part of his or her job can, through training and supervision, develop special skills and knowledge in the field of interviewing and thus become a specialist on interviewing children. Such expertise would facilitate the investigative work and the potential to make optimal decisions in these difficult cases would increase. In conclusion, several factors point to the importance of a concerted effort among those of us who work with this kind of matter - researchers, social workers, the police, lawyers, clinics and others - in the ambition to achieve investigations that are maximally based on the child's own version of any incident that may have occurred, since this account may be decisive for the outcome of the legal assessment.