Part 1: Providing Critical Skills on Sensitive Investigations
An 11-year-old who witnessed a murder. A terrified teenager who watched her parent beat and lock her sister in a closet over a period of weeks. A 12-year-old lured by two men on the Internet to a rendezvous where she was raped.
In all these tragic cases, children were either witnesses to or victims of crimes. The ability to get them to talk about what they saw and experienced is the job of our child forensic interviewers, whose expertise is in constant demand across the country.
“Traditional law enforcement interviewing methods used in typical adult cases are counterproductive when it comes to child victims or witnesses to crimes,” said Stephanie Knapp, one of the Bureau’s four child forensic interviewers. “Sometimes you see unsuccessful outcomes in cases because of poor interview techniques. In many cases of child abuse, for example, where the victim is the only witness, the interview may be a critical element of the investigation.”
Part of our Office for Victim Assistance based at FBI Headquarters, child forensic interviewers specialize in crimes involving human trafficking, child sexual exploitation, and violent crimes, including those on Indian reservations. Like her colleagues—two more members will soon be added to the team—Knapp is a licensed clinical social worker and a highly trained interviewer. While her goal is to support criminal investigations, “we must also consider the unique developmental and emotional needs of victims and witnesses,” she said. “There is a delicate balance between doing what’s best for victims and what’s best for cases.”
The actual interview techniques are based on a set of research-based protocols. “Our techniques are very effective,” said interviewer Karen Blackwell. “We often get case-breaking information after traditional methods have failed.”
The team conducts hundreds of interviews nationwide every year, and they also train others—an important part of the mission. “We can’t possibly handle all the interview requests we get,” Knapp said. “So we train law enforcement officers domestically and internationally on our techniques.”
Although they follow time-tested protocols, interviewers acknowledge that working with children is an art as well as a science, requiring experience and intuition. “You have to understand and follow the protocols,” Blackwell said, “but it’s also essential that you connect with the kids so that they trust you.”
Often, interviewers don’t have much time to establish that trust, and it may have to happen through an interpreter. Sometimes—because they are afraid or have learned not to trust adults—“the kids just aren’t ready to talk,” Blackwell said. “You have to deal with that.”
“We often see the worst of humanity,” Knapp explained. “But we also have the opportunity to have a positive impact on the life of a traumatized child by simply listening to them talk about their trauma. This can be amazingly powerful and helpful to the healing process.”
“We know kids don’t always tell us everything during interviews,” she added. “But disclosure is a process, and part of our job is to help investigators understand why a victim may or may not be disclosing information. On some level, many of these children are struggling to survive.”
Success isn’t always defined by a positive prosecution, Knapp noted. “Success must also include helping children understand that they do not have to define themselves as victims for the rest of their lives because of the trauma or abuse they may have suffered.”
National Crime Victims’ Rights Week
Sunday marks the beginning of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, an annual event started in 1981 by the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs to promote victims’ rights, honor victims of crime, and recognize those who work on behalf of victims. For more information about National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, visit http://ovc.ncjrs.gov/ncvrw/.
Next: Training is essential to the mission.