How to Interview Young Victims Sensitively

One of the most important yet delicate aspects of my job as an investigator is conducting interviews with young victims. These young witnesses have already endured unspeakable trauma and depending on how the interview is handled, they could potentially face more distress through the process. It’s therefore crucial that I have specialized training and empathy to fulfill my duty of gathering needed information, while placing the child’s wellbeing above all else. 

When a crime has been committed against a minor, their testimony can be critical to pursuing justice and protecting other potential victims. However, children process and recall events much differently than adults. My role is to use techniques and patient listening to gently help a child share difficult memories and experiences in a way that minimizes further trauma or re-traumatization. Through establishing trust and putting the child first, I aim to empower their voice rather than subjecting them to an adversarial process not of their own making. 

It is a high responsibility interviewing vulnerable youth impacted by crime. But with compassion and care for these young witnesses, I believe we can fulfill our obligation to society while still protecting the dignity and long-term psyche of children who deserve nothing less after suffering harm through no fault of their own. Their comfort and wellbeing is the top priority when discerning the truth. While getting their testimony is crucial for building a case, we must do so in a way that minimizes further trauma to these vulnerable kids. Having conducted dozens of interviews myself over the years, I’ve picked up some tips that seem to help put children at ease and get more accurate information. 

Location of the Interview is Key

The setting where an interview takes place can significantly impact how comfortable a child feels opening up about traumatic events. A police station or unfamiliar office is intimidating and may contribute to feelings of fear or anxiety in a young witness. Ideally, interviews should occur in a child-friendly space designed specifically for talking to victims of abuse or crime. Places like children’s advocacy centers aim to feel welcoming and non-threatening. Softer lighting, decorations at a kid’s eye level, and toys or books help shift the dynamics from interrogation to more of a protected conversation. 

Being in a more normalized setting helps children slowly lower their guard because it does not resemble scary situations like being in trouble or in a scary building full of police. With tension reduced through a calming location tailored to them, kids are freer to focus internally on recalling difficult details rather than externally on where they are sitting. Access to comfort items is also key. Whether a beloved stuffed animal, blanket, or drink, such small provisions give kids something safe to hold as they share. Tactile sensors can aid grounding and memory retrieval through the physical comfort of a familiar object during stressful testimony. 

Ultimately, prioritizing a serene space allows interviews to achieve their true aim – facilitating a traumatized young voice without them feeling re-victimized through the process.  

Building a Comfortable Rapport During an Interview with a Young Victim

When meeting a child, it is important to start by making them feel at ease. Like any interview building a comfortable rapport with the subject is key, but this can be a much more prolonged process than an adult victim. To begin building this rapport I introduce myself by first name, and gently explain that my job is to listen and help make sure they’re safe. I emphasize they can choose not to answer anything and take breaks anytime.  

I find asking an easy opening question like their favorite color, toy or subject in school facilitates a smooth transition into conversation. Smiling and maintaining eye contact on their level conveys care and attention. As they answer, I reflect back what was said to indicate active listening. Before delving into difficult topics, I take the time to learn simple facts to establish a baseline rapport.   

We may discuss pets, hobbies, friends or fun memories from home. Keeping initial exchanges light allows a comfort level to develop so when harder issues emerge, trust exists in our connection. If your subject is nervous, I take time to reassure them that it’s normal to feel that way and reinforce that they’re doing great. Reminding the child why details could help is also important to help empower them to the purpose of the interview which may be beyond themselves. Once properly introduced and at ease, I guide gently into the purpose for discussion using straightforward, non-intimidating language. With empathy, even the unimaginable becomes shareable. 

My role is ensuring each child feels heard, respected and safe through disclosure of their experiences. With compassionate introductions centered first on relaxation over interrogation, a partnership develops that protects dignity above all when justice requires their strength.  

It’s important not to lead young witnesses or suggest answers for a number of reasons. There is a lot of overlap in this reasoning because it is critical to obtaining a reliable and credible account from a subject.  

Credibility of Evidence  

While a child’s account may provide vital clues, we must be scrupulously careful not to compromise reliability through potentially leading questions, matter-of-fact assertions or even well-meaning but misguided prompts. Young minds remain intellectually developing, with natural predispositions toward pleasing authority figures that can unintentionally influence memory. 

This is why fluid, open-ended inquiry holds precedence – to avoid subconsciously guiding a minor toward inferences simply to complete questioning expediently. Instead, one must allow organic recall and description unfettered to emerge through patience. 

Legally, tainted information threatens a case’s defensibility while psychologically, implanted recollections risk long-term emotional impacts of incorrectly incorporating fictional events into understandings of real trauma. Both bear heavy consequences we’re obligated to prevent. Some minimize this suggestibility, but developmental research consistently reminds us children uniquely perceive and process experiences relative to logical, linear adult cognition. Our duty lies not in disregarding these proven dynamics, but in compensating conscientiously through nuanced interviews that place proof burdens aside, prioritizing the wellbeing of witnesses reliant on our care. 

Proper techniques aimed at enabling independent youth voices hold power to both aid justice and safeguard harmed children’s long-term welfare holistically. This remains our steady guidance in such sensitive work.  

Accuracy of Recall of Young Victims

When trauma occurs, memory consolidation can become disrupted, and details confused more readily than with logical adult experiences. Over time, multiple discussions attempting to help a minor process and come to terms with events may unintentionally integrate new elements that become inextricable from actual occurrences. This further highlights why objectivity must guide every interview interaction. Even subtly leading questions posed to simply move discussion along could plant seeds distorting remembrance in vulnerable witnesses. Imagined scenarios might mix with and ultimately replace real memories as the situation is cognitively revisited. 

As professionals responsible for justice and healing, we can’t risk compromising the integrity of a child’s recall and statement in this way. Instead, fostering an impartial space where organic recollection emerges uninfluenced remains our sole ethical path, regardless of impatience to conclude a case. Doing right by these young people demands diligently avoiding potentially contaminating influences on the accuracy of details provided – however uncomfortable prolonged silences or indirect responses may initially feel. Our role is enabling independent voices free from external biases, not expediting proceedings at their expense. This keeps welfare and trustworthiness as top priorities as intended. 

Objective Fact-Finding 

The goal of the interview should be objective, unbiased fact-finding rather than eliciting specific responses. Leading questions push a child towards predetermined answers rather than letting them freely recall and describe events in their own words based on their independent recollection. 

Leading a minor witness in any way jeopardizes this essential neutrality. Even subtly guiding discussion risks skewing a statement toward confirming particular outcomes over discovering facts independently. Our role is avoiding predetermined mindsets that could taint a child’s recollection, not searching for validation of theories. Children especially look to trusted adults like authorities for social cues on appropriate responses, making them highly susceptible to unintentional influence even through well-meaning but misaligned questions. This further emphasizes letting each interview unfold naturally from the youth’s perspective rather than our preconceptions. 

An independent, unbiased account benefits not only legal integrity but also the psychological welfare of witnesses who must avoid feeling pressured into recalling details a certain way. Factual accuracy and the wellbeing of minors must prevail over desire to simply fill an investigative checklist. Through judicious, impartial inquiry that prioritizes each child’s perspective, we can fulfill our duty of diligent fact-finding while still protecting vulnerable populations from secondary harm. Maintaining steadfast neutrality sets the foundation for this delicate work as intended. 

Maintaining Neutrality When Interviewing Young Victims

As the interviewer I must remain completely neutral and impartial. Leading questions could intentionally or unintentionally feed a desired narrative rather than allowing the child to provide an uninfluenced account. This risks compromising my neutral role. 

Preserving the integrity of neutral fact-finding is so crucial when interviewing vulnerable youth, and it requires constant vigilance on my part. As human beings with biases and preconceptions, subtle subjectivity can unintentionally creep into even well-meaning interactions if I’m not acutely aware. 

My role demands seeing each situation impartially from the beginning without predetermined suppositions or desired storylines. Children innately pick up on subtle social cues, so maintaining a conscientiously even-keeled demeanor sets the foundation for them to provide an organic account free from any external steering. 

Leading questions, prompted responses, or body language implying a favored version of events violates this impartiality. Even indirect facial expressions or tones of voice could skew a minor witness toward corroborating a particular view of what occurred over independently recalling facts. 

This is why each interview requires treating each case as a tabula rasa – a clean slate approached without predefined outcomes in mind. Neutrality also means honestly acknowledging when insufficient details emerge and avoiding pushing for closure before organic discussion concludes. 

Overall, maintaining an equidistant perspective benefits not just legal integrity but also the welfare and empowerment of young people who deserve unbiased listening without implied consequences based on how they recollect sensitive experiences. Fairness must come before any other driver in this work. 

Trust in the Process  

If a child senses they are being led rather than just giving an open statement, it undermines the relationship of trust and makes them less likely to continue cooperating with the interview. An unbiased approach is key to obtaining full disclosure. Trust forms the bedrock for a successful interview process. A child who feels their testimony may be manipulated in some way will understandably withdraw or hedge disclosures out of justified uncertainty. 

When a minor witness has already undergone trauma, establishing reliability and impartiality becomes even more important to empowering their participation. Subtly leading questions, even posed in a well-meaning spirit, convey that an expected account is desired over an independent recount of facts alone. This risks making a vulnerable youth question whether they can share perspectives freely without predetermined social consequences based on adult-given “cues”.  

Feeling one must corroborate a certain narrative to please authorities understandably shuts down full disclosure essential to investigations. My role then is focusing entirely on enabling each child’s perspective to emerge without filter, so they understand their recollections will be heard for what they are rather than as validation or contradiction of external theories. Building trust in our relationship’s equitability encourages witnesses that their testimony matters independently of direction given. 

When impartiality and neutrality form the bedrock, the child will feel empowered to recount experiences fully without threatening implications. This autonomy ultimately better serves both justice and long-term wellbeing after trauma violation. Fairness remains foundational to successful, compassionate interviews. 


So in summary, neutral, open-ended questioning has to take priority over potentially flawed methods like leading to ensure independent, credible evidence is collected while protecting the child’s wellbeing and trust throughout. Ultimately, remember your role is to enable their voice and ensure their wellbeing – not grill them or gather evidence at all costs. With compassion, you can gain indispensable witness accounts to aid justice. Those are some of the techniques I’ve found most productive in my experience.  

The goal is making the interview safe space where children feel heard, rather than exposed all over again. With patience and empathy, we can fulfill our duty to society while also protecting the vulnerable kids caught in tragic circumstances not of their making. By focusing on their comfort, answers will often follow. 


by: Mike Thompson, CEO

Read More : Family Law Investigations: Part I – Child Custody, Welfare, & Visitation