The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

“I Only Want to Know What You Know”: The Use of Orienting Messages During Forensic Interviews and Their Effects On Child Behavior

Saturday, January 18, 2014
HBG Convention Center, Bridge Hall Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Jennifer N. Anderson, LISW, Associate Director at CornerHouse, CornerHouse, Minneapolis, MN
Gwendolyn Anderson, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St Paul, MN
Jane F. Gilgun, PhD, LICSW, Professor, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, St. Paul, MN
Background and Purpose:  Research has shown that children who practice interview “rules” at the outset of an interaction demonstrate enhanced autonomy (Cordon, Saetermoe & Goodman, 2005; Waterman & Blades, 2011).  Due to concerns that “rule setting” also serves to increase interviewer authority in the context of a child abuse investigation, practitioners hypothesize that orienting messages may enhance autonomy without perceived deleterious effects.  Additionally, orienting messages are designed to enhance the autonomy and authority of the child in the interview setting by equipping them with important information about the novel setting with an unfamiliar adult and may provide the opportunity for the child to correct the interviewer if they say something inaccurate.  Such messages afford the child the opportunity to say 'I don't know' rather than assuming that she must provide an answer that she may not actually know.  This is especially important for children who may not articulate the need for clarification if they don’t understand a question or don’t know the answer.  As part of a program evaluation, practitioners at a children’s advocacy center in the Upper Midwest wanted to know whether a revised version of their interview that incorporated orienting messages at the onset of the interview and as the situation presented would elicit more autonomous responses from children.  We hypothesized the use of more orienting messages by the forensic interviewers would result in children providing more autonomous responses indicating they don’t know, don’t understand the question, or by correcting inaccurate information. 

Methods:  This study evaluated the increased use of orienting messages through content analysis of 88 videotaped forensic interviews and case files where children were interviewed regarding sexual abuse allegations.  Coded data included demographic information, relationship of child to the alleged perpetrator, type of abuse allegation, interview orienting messages, and the outcome variable of children’s responses including the number of times a child indicated they didn’t know, didn’t understand the question, if they corrected the interviewer, or asked a question of the interviewer.  Data analysis included descriptive statistics and multiple linear regression.

Results:  Controlling for the forensic interviewer, the use of an interpreter,  and child demographics, multiple regression showed that the more orienting messages used by forensic interviewers, both at the beginning of the interview and throughout, resulted in significantly more responses or questions from children (t=8.08, df=78, p<0.001) with an overall variance of 43% (adjusted R2=0.431).  Boys were significantly less likely to indicate they didn’t know, provide corrective responses, or ask questions (t=-1.99, df=78, p=0.05). 

Implications:  Our results show that the increased use of orienting messages significantly predicted more autonomous responses from children that they don’t know, had a question, didn’t understand, or by correcting the interviewer.  This study supports the idea that children may feel more empowered in the forensic interview setting if provided with specific messages grounded in examples at the interview onset rather than merely as the situation presented.  Interestingly, our results also indicate that boys are less likely to use these responses or ask questions signifying that they may need additional support.