September 26, 2016 – Orienting Messages and Autonomous Responses

Teresa HuizarGood morning and happy Monday.  I hope this finds everyone well.  This morning, I’d like to focus once again on the topic of forensic interviews, in light of a recent article published in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse.

The article, “I Only Want to Know What You Know: The Use of Orienting Messages During Forensic Interviews and Their Effects on Child Behavior,” [1]  provides important insight into interview methodology.  And while the study focuses specifically on the use of the CornerHouse Forensic Interview Protocol, the findings are useful for interviewers irrespective of which protocol they follow. 

To conduct the study, researchers “performed a content analysis of 120 video-recorded forensic interviews and corresponding case files of children and adolescents at a child advocacy center (CAC).”  Id., p. 661.  In this particular CAC, interviewers were trained in the CornerHouse Forensic Interview Protocol.  This protocol has always used “orienting messages” during the course of an interview.  The use of orienting messages “prepare children by inviting them to correct the interviewer, encouraging children to ask questions, and to say 'I don’t know' or 'I don’t understand.' ” Id., p. 656. 

Prior to 2012, the protocol did not specifically direct interviewers to use orienting messages at the outset of an interview.  Rather, such messages were used throughout the interview, as the opportunity arose during the course of the interaction between interviewer and interviewee.  In 2012, the protocol was revised so as to including orienting messages both at the outset of the interview and throughout the interview as well.  The researchers in the current study examined interviews that pre-dated the change, as well as those that followed it, in order to determine the following:
  1. Whether using the revised interview and current practice of introducing orienting messages both at the beginning and “as needed” would result in significantly more autonomous responses from children during the interview overall,
  2. Whether the use of more orienting messages during the interview would predict significantly more responses from children during the interview, and
  3. Whether particular orienting messages provided by interviewers at any time during the interview would result in significantly more autonomous responses by children during the interview as compared to other orienting messages.
Id., p. 660. 

The findings of the study are instructive.  The results showed that “the current practice of using orienting messages both at the outset of the interview and “as needed” resulted in significantly more autonomous responses from children when compared to the previous practice….”  Id., p. 668.  And the researchers also found that an increase in orienting messages did lead to an increase in autonomous responses by children.

Perhaps most useful is the finding that certain orienting messages resulted in significantly more autonomous responses as compared to others.  Specifically, the researchers found that “can’t/won’t say” orienting messages and those that encouraged children to ask questions and/or ask for clarification resulted in significantly more autonomous responses than other orienting messages.  Id., p. 669. 

This study’s findings have important implications for all forensic interviewers, irrespective of which particular protocol, or combination of protocols, they follow.  As the researchers point out at the outset, forensic interviews are “unique and distinct interactions, the demands of which may contravene some of the social conventions or rules children are accustomed to in everyday life.”  Id., p. 656.  Orienting messages help forensic interviewers ensure that their interviews “are conducted in a manner that is developmentally and culturally sensitive, unbiased, fact-finding and legally sound,” as required by NCA’s Standards for Accredited MembersId., p. 20.

I urge you to download this article and read it in full, and to share it with your interviewers and your MDT members.  Working together, and using the latest available research, we can ensure that the “information from a child about abuse allegations … will support accurate and fair decision making by the MDT within the criminal justice, child protection, and service delivery systems.”  Id.

As always, I thank you for all your hard work and dedication and for all that you do on behalf of children and families.

Warm regards,  
[1] Full text of this publication may be found in the National Children's Advocacy Center's Child Abuse Library Online (CALiO ™) or by contacting the NCAC Research Digital Information Librarian. CALiO ™ is a service of the National Children's Advocacy Center (NCAC). | 516 C Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002 US

Copyright © 2016 National Children's Alliance, All rights reserved.

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