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Forensic Interviewing of Children with Disabilities: Strategies and Best Practices for Professionals


As a professional involved in child abuse investigations, it is essential to understand the unique challenges associated with conducting forensic interviews of children with disabilities, including those who may be non-verbal. In this article, we will discuss some critical aspects of interviewing children with disabilities such as autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and developmental delays, and provide guidance for child abuse professionals and parents on how to approach these sensitive situations.


Children with disabilities face distinct challenges when participating in forensic interviews. Some may have difficulty understanding questions or communicating their experiences. Others may be non-verbal or have limited verbal abilities, making it harder for them to express themselves. Additionally, children with disabilities may be more vulnerable to abuse and less likely to disclose their experiences due to fear, shame, or a lack of understanding about what constitutes abuse.


Regarding the specific disabilities that a professional may see in a child abuse investigation, here are a few of the most commonly seen disabilities and information about each that would be relevant to professionals to understand:


Autism


Children with autism may have trouble with social interaction, communication, and understanding abstract concepts. They might also experience sensory sensitivities, which can make the interview setting uncomfortable. When interviewing a child with autism, it's crucial to adapt your approach by using clear, concrete language and incorporating visual aids or other communication tools. Establishing rapport and ensuring the child feels comfortable and supported is vital for a successful interview.


Intellectual Disabilities


Children with intellectual disabilities may have difficulty understanding complex concepts, processing information, or recalling events. Interviewers should use simple language, break questions into smaller parts, and allow ample time for the child to process and respond. It may be helpful to use visual aids, gestures, or other communication tools to facilitate understanding.


Learning Disabilities


Children with learning disabilities may struggle with comprehension, memory, or expressing themselves verbally. It's essential to be patient and provide appropriate accommodations, such as visual aids, to help the child understand the questions and communicate their experiences. Be mindful of the child's specific learning disability and adapt your approach accordingly.


Developmental Delays


Children with developmental delays may have difficulty understanding questions, processing information, or expressing themselves. It's essential to use age-appropriate language and techniques, allowing for additional processing time and providing support throughout the interview process.



Children with non-verbal or limited verbal abilities face distinct challenges in forensic interviews. These children may rely on alternative communication methods, which can make it difficult for them to express their experiences and emotions effectively. As a professional in child abuse investigations, it's crucial to adapt your approach to accommodate these children's needs and ensure they have the opportunity to communicate their experiences accurately. Here are some suggestions for how to improve communications and accommodate the child:


Familiarize yourself with alternative communication methods.

Children who are non-verbal or have limited verbal abilities may use various alternative communication methods such as sign language, communication boards, or assistive technology devices like speech-generating devices. Understanding these communication methods can help you better interact with the child and facilitate a smoother interview process.


Consult with professionals


Collaborate with speech-language pathologists or other professionals who have experience working with non-verbal or limited verbal children. They can provide valuable insights and guidance on communication strategies and techniques that may be effective for the child during the interview.


Utilize visual aids and props


Visual aids, such as pictures, symbols, or objects, can be useful for helping non-verbal or limited verbal children express their experiences. Providing props that represent specific events, people, or emotions can also help the child convey their experiences more effectively.


Be patient and allow extra time


Conducting a forensic interview with a non-verbal or limited verbal child may take longer than a typical interview. Be patient and provide ample time for the child to process questions and communicate their responses using their preferred communication method.


Validate the child's communication efforts


Acknowledge and validate the child's attempts to communicate, even if their communication method is different from verbal speech. This validation can help the child feel more comfortable and supported during the interview.


Observe non-verbal cues


Pay close attention to the child's body language, facial expressions, and gestures, as these non-verbal cues can provide valuable information about their emotions and experiences.


By adapting your approach and incorporating these strategies, you can better accommodate the needs of non-verbal or limited verbal children in forensic interviews. This will enable these children to express their experiences more accurately and ensure they receive the support and protection they need.


One strategy that is highly recommended for these special victims is the “Multiple Session Forensic Interview” which is also known as an MSFI. A MSFI is an approach that involves conducting a series of interviews with a child over multiple sessions. This approach can be particularly beneficial for children with disabilities, including those who are non-verbal or have limited verbal abilities, as it allows for a more in-depth exploration of the child's experiences while accommodating their unique communication needs. Here are a few of the benefits to using the MSFI:


Reducing stress and anxiety


Children with disabilities may experience heightened stress and anxiety during a forensic interview, especially if they face communication challenges. MSFI can alleviate some of this stress by breaking the interview process into smaller, more manageable sessions, allowing the child to feel more at ease.


Providing ample time for communication


Children with disabilities, particularly those who are non-verbal or have limited verbal abilities, may require more time to process questions and communicate their responses. MSFI provides the necessary time and flexibility for children to communicate at their own pace.


Tailoring the approach


MSFI allows professionals to tailor their interviewing approach to the specific needs of the child. For instance, they can incorporate alternative communication methods, visual aids, or props more effectively across multiple sessions, adapting their approach based on the child's progress and comfort level.


Allowing for consultation and collaboration


The multiple sessions in MSFI offer opportunities for the interviewer to consult with other professionals, such as speech-language pathologists or special education experts, between sessions. This collaboration can provide insights and guidance on how to improve communication strategies or adapt the interview process to better accommodate the child's needs.


Assessing progress and adjusting techniques


MSFI enables professionals to assess the child's progress throughout the interview process and make adjustments as needed. For example, if a particular communication method or technique proves ineffective, the interviewer can explore alternative strategies in subsequent sessions.


Best Practices


Regarding the best practices for preparing for an interview and conducting an interview with a child who has a disability:


Collaborate with experts


Collaboration between detectives, forensic interviewers, parents, and professionals with expertise in a child's specific disability is vital for ensuring the most effective and accurate forensic interview process. These professionals can offer valuable insights and guidance on how to approach the interview, adapt strategies, and use appropriate tools and resources tailored to the child's unique needs. Here are some ways these different stakeholders can collaborate:


Before the forensic interview, detectives and forensic interviewers can consult with professionals who have experience working with children with the specific disability, such as special education teachers, speech therapists, or psychologists. These experts can provide information about the child's communication style, any assistive devices they use, and potential challenges or barriers to communication.


Detectives and forensic interviewers can benefit from specialized training and education on interviewing children with disabilities. This training may be provided by professionals who work with children with specific disabilities, disability advocacy organizations, or specialized forensic interviewing programs.


Parents or caregivers can offer essential insights into their child's communication preferences, strengths, and challenges. They can help provide background information on the child's disability, medical history, and any accommodations that might be needed during the interview process.


In some cases, it may be beneficial to have a professional with expertise in the child's specific disability present during the interview. This expert can provide real-time support and guidance to the interviewer, helping to facilitate communication and ensure that the child's needs are met throughout the process.


After the forensic interview, detectives, forensic interviewers, and professionals with expertise in the child's disability can collaborate to review the interview process, discuss any challenges encountered, and evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies employed. This debriefing can inform future interviews and help improve the overall approach to interviewing children with disabilities.


Ongoing communication throughout the process and investigation

Maintaining open communication between all parties involved is crucial for ensuring a successful collaboration. Detectives, forensic interviewers, parents, and professionals with expertise in the child's disability should keep each other informed about any developments in the case and work together to address any emerging challenges or concerns.


By working closely with professionals who have expertise in a child's specific disability, detectives, forensic interviewers, and parents can ensure that the forensic interview process is tailored to the child's unique needs, ultimately resulting in more accurate and reliable information that can be used to support the investigation.


Use appropriate communication tools


Visual aids can play a significant role in facilitating communication during forensic interviews with children with disabilities, particularly for those who are non-verbal or have limited verbal abilities. By incorporating visual aids, interviewers can help children better understand the questions and communicate their responses more effectively.


“Picture Communication Symbols (PCS)” are simple images or icons representing objects, actions, or emotions. Using PCS can help children with communication difficulties express themselves by pointing to the relevant symbol or combining symbols to convey more complex ideas.


“Social Stories” are short, individualized stories that use simple language and visuals to describe a specific situation or concept. They can help children with autism or other developmental disabilities understand the purpose of the interview, what to expect, and what is expected of them during the process.


A “Visual Schedule” is a sequence of images or symbols representing the steps or activities involved in the forensic interview process. It helps children with disabilities follow the progression of the interview and anticipate what comes next, reducing anxiety and confusion.


“Body diagrams” are visual representations of the human body that can help children identify and describe body parts and locations of potential injuries or abuse. Interviewers can use gender-neutral or gender-specific body diagrams, depending on the child's needs and comfort level.


“Emotion Charts” display a range of facial expressions or emoji’s representing different emotions. They can help children with limited verbal abilities express their feelings during the interview process.


“Assistive Technology Devices” such as tablets, communication boards, or speech-generating devices can be used to display visual aids, facilitate communication, or provide alternative means of expression for children with disabilities.


“Visual Cue Cards” with images, symbols, or words that represent specific questions, concepts, or prompts. The interviewer can use these cards to present questions or prompts visually, helping the child understand and respond more effectively.


When using visual aids, it's important for the interviewer to be familiar with the child's specific communication needs and preferences, as well as any assistive technology or communication devices they may use. Collaboration with professionals such as speech-language pathologists, special education teachers, or therapists can provide valuable insights and guidance on selecting and using appropriate visual aids during the forensic interview process. By incorporating visual aids into the forensic interview, professionals can create a more accessible and supportive environment for children with disabilities, enabling them to understand and communicate their experiences more effectively.


In conclusion, forensic interviewing of children with disabilities presents unique challenges that require specialized knowledge and adaptations. By understanding the specific needs of children with autism, intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and developmental delays, child abuse professionals and parents can work together to create an environment where these vulnerable children can share their experiences and receive the support they need.





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