By Karmel Mister Willis, Montgomery County Women’s Center
Attending the Texas Bar College Summer School CLE at Moody Gardens provided me with the immense opportunity to gain better insight in numerous areas of law. One topic that particularly intrigued me was the session titled “Interviewing Children: A Primer for Attorneys and Judges.”
It is widely agreed upon that children should have a voice in family law cases, especially when those cases involve family violence. However, I now also appreciate the fact that the method of interviewing is crucial to correctly assess how the child is adjusting to change in custody and/or living arrangements.
Research has shown that trainings aimed at educating attorneys and judges on the proper way to interview children are ineffective once the interviewer is back in the day-to-day work routine. Most workshop participants tend to revert back to their pre-training interview styles due to a lack of continuous feedback and assessment of their interview techniques. This pre-training interviewing style means that many children are asked leading and suggestive questions by the interviewer. This style of interviewing can be extremely harmful, especially when the interviewee is a child who is the subject of a divorce and/or child custody dispute.
Understanding a child’s perspective is crucial, especially when there are allegations of abuse against either parent or when the child is struggling due to the custody arrangements that the parents have in place. In most instances, a child exhibits their feelings in a non-verbal manner prior to the child saying anything.
For a forensic interview of a child to be effective, the following strategies must be used:
- the interviewer must establish rapport with the child
- the interviewer should only use open-ended questions
- the questions posed by the interviewer should be follow-ups from the child’s responses
- the child’s own vocabulary should be used when the interviewer asks questions
To better equip individuals with the skills necessary to appropriately interview children, these interviews should include specific “focus areas.” These focus areas are thought to be part of the solution to ensuring interviewers maintain the skills long after the training has ended.
- The first focal point should be an assessment of the child’s physical space at each parent’s home. Things such as where the child’s toys will be kept, what is the best part of being at each parent’s home, and what does the child talk about with each parent when packing to go to the other parent’s home are all worthwhile matters to be discussed at this stage.
- The second area of focus should be how the child views the emotional climate at each parent’s home.
- A third area to focus on is an evaluation of the child’s perspective of the psychological space at each parent’s home. This includes household structure and schedules.
- A fourth focal point is determining the child’s experience in spending time away from the other parent. One question to be asked at this point is whether the child likes to spend time away from the other parent.
- A final topic to discuss is whether the child feels a sense of powerlessness through the process and the child’s feelings on whether a parent cares or not based on whether that parent exercises consistent visitations.
If an interviewer focuses on these five points, the interview should be effective.
Overall, the goal in performing children’s forensic interviews is to gain an honest voice from a child. The interviewer should not in any manner influence the child’s perspective. The interviewer’s role is to make the child feel comfortable to share their feelings and thoughts, so the interviewer can better gauge what is best for the child. If an interviewer maintains a focused interview on the topics and asks questions without leading, it is hoped that the child’s perspective of the circumstances will be clear and true.