Debra Ann Poole: On Interviewing Children in Forensic Contexts

This is the latest in a series of interviews with APA Books authors and editors. For this interview, Ron Teeter, Supervisor, Technical Editing and Design, interviewed Debra Ann Poole, of Central Michigan University.

Note: The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and should not be taken to represent the official views or policies of the American Psychological Association.

Debra Ann Poole, with her sons Jack (left) and John (right)

Debra Ann Poole, with her grandsons Jack (left) and John (right)

Debra Ann Poole, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Central Michigan University. Her research has explored the effects of repeated questioning, how children respond to different question forms, the influence of misinformation from parents on children’s event narratives, children’s ability to report the sources of their knowledge, and the risks and benefits of interview props. Dr. Poole serves on the editorial boards of the journals Law and Human Behavior; Psychology, Public Policy, and Law; and the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.


Children see the world in different ways from adults. Their seemingly off-kilter interpretations can be a source of delight. But when experts need to call on children to help them get at the truth of a situation, especially when a child has experienced a traumatic event, the style and content of a child’s communications need to be gently—but expertly—navigated.

Child eyewitness testimony can be unreliable for a number or reasons: for example, children’s incomplete language development, their greater risk of retrieving inaccurate information in response to memory cues, and their desire to say what they think the interviewer wants to hear (whether truthful or not). In Interviewing Children: The Science of Conversation in Forensic Contexts, Debra Ann Poole presents a flexible, evidence-based approach to interviewing children that is intended to reduce the ambiguities and errors in their responses. Those who interview children, supervise interviewers, review interview findings, or craft local policies about interviewing children will find much to guide them in the book’s pages. Below, Dr. Poole talks with APA Books about the ideas in her book, which can serve as a road map for anyone interviewing children in a forensic context.

What is forensic interviewing?

Forensic in this context means related to a legal process. Forensic interviewing involves conversations with possible victims, witnesses, or perpetrators to support investigations. The scientific study of child forensic interviewing was fueled largely by concerns about interviews conducted for sexual abuse investigations, but children are interviewed for many reasons: when there are concerns about other forms of maltreatment, for murder and arson investigations, to inform family court proceedings, and even for civil cases, such as wrongful death lawsuits.

But the techniques of child forensic interviewing have widespread applications: If you want to get accurate information from a child, reading about forensic interviewing is a good place to start. For example, some doctors and medical researchers need to ask children about symptoms associated with various conditions. If these professionals talk the way adults usually talk to children, the information they get might not be very useful.

How did this area become a compelling interest for you?

I was up front about this in the book’s introduction because I want students to realize that most scientists do not have a clear vision of where we are going. We start by acquiring a set of research skills, and then something unexpected happens that nudges us this way or that way.

My story is simple. I was trained to design experiments that would reveal basic principles of development. But after landing my first faculty job in the 1980s, I was miserably uninterested in what I had been trained to do. Then some high-profile multivictim day care cases hit the media—cases like McMartin and Michaels—and everyone was reading about the way interviewers were talking to children and the bizarre things children were

saying. Because I had been trained to bring children into the laboratory and figure out why they did what they did, I knew that research psychologists like myself had the tools to figure out what combination of interview techniques and child characteristics produced inaccurate testimony. And because I had two young children of my own, I had ready access to some demonstration children! Early in my career, there was a lot of squatting down and talking to my children in different ways. I was fascinated with the strange answers I sometimes heard at home and in the laboratory and wanted to know more.

Who did you view as your book’s readers? Did this change as you developed your ideas?

I always envisioned a book that teachers, physicians, and child protection workers might pick up, along with attorneys, judges, and forensic interview specialists. As reviewers helped me hone the content, I definitely became more aware of how challenging it is to write for a diverse and international audience. I did not want to impose terminology or a philosophy about case investigation that represented only selected research teams or jurisdictions.

Can you give an example of how you might ask a child and an adult the same difficult question?

It is tricky business to compare children with adults.  A question can be difficult for a child because it asks about a concept young children usually don’t grasp, but this same question would not be difficult for most adults. A question can also be “difficult” because it raises a highly emotional issue, but we cannot assume that everything adults find upsetting will be upsetting to children regardless of their ages. When training forensic interviewers, we talk a lot about context: Eliciting this information from this age group is tricky, and there are some strategies that might work.

Has anything especially surprised you as you have explored this area of communication?

It’s fair to say that nearly everything surprised me. Science has a wonderful way of keeping overconfidence in check.

Your book is subtitled The Science of Conversation in Forensic Contexts. But you also make the point in your pages that interviewing children is in part a science and in part an art. Where might the two blur or diverge? For example, I’m sure intuition must play a role.

I refer to the art of asking good questions. Because every case is different, every interview is unique. We can be guided by a set of interviewing principles, but ultimately each interviewer will have to decide, “Where do I go from here?” Art in this sense refers to the application of skill in a novel context or way.

Intuition is a hot-button issue for psychologists because intuitions can be useful or wildly inaccurate, depending upon the situation. Daniel Kahneman has a wonderful discussion of this in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. People gain useful intuitions when information in the environment is regular enough to spot patterns and people receive feedback regarding the accuracy of their predictions. When those environmental features are lacking, however, professionals can become increasingly confident in their predictions even though these predictions are highly inaccurate. For example, an interviewer might get wedded to a technique that elicits reports of abuse, but without information about the accuracy of those reports the interviewer’s belief that this is a good technique lacks grounding. On the other hand, that same interviewer might notice that whenever a 4-year-old child has been talking off topic for a minute, the child almost never gets back on track with being redirected. In that case, the interviewer develops a sense for when to redirect a child—without ever being explicitly trained about that. The take-home message is that all intuitions are not equally valuable.

What are a few of the challenges inherent to interviewing a child with an intellectual disability or, say, autism spectrum disorder?

Children with disabilities are highly variable in their individual strengths and challenges. More so than with typically-developing children, it is helpful when interviewers have some background information to help plan the interview, but there will always be a process of learning about each child early in the interview. Knowing about a disability can help interviewers understand certain behavior patterns, but ultimately interviewers plan to interview a specific child—not a disability.

You must interview a child who has been through a trauma. Meeting her for the first time, what’s the first thing you might do to attempt to put her at ease talking with you?

Because children typically do not open up to strangers, it is important not to jump into crucial conversation too quickly. It is also important to avoid behavior a child might perceive as threatening, such as sitting too close, staring, and pressuring children to talk. Children warm up to adults who are calm, nonthreatening, and start an interaction by connecting to something the child says or does. Watch how successful children infiltrate a group of unfamiliars: They sit nearby and play in parallel, and then they mimic something the group is doing or make a relevant contribution. Children who try to contribute too much and too soon are often rebuffed. In the book, I talk about conversational habits that convey you are doing something with the child, not to the child.

How has the field of child psychology powered changes in interviewing techniques? 

I’m so happy I can make a plug for basic research. Eyewitness researchers like myself have it easy: When we get up in front of an audience to talk about cases and false memories, all eyes are glued to us and hands shoot up with questions. But trust me, when I start talking about the problem children have linking indexicals to referents—which is a topic in language development—two dozen people check email on their phones. This is unfortunate because forensic interviewing recommendations rest on a foundation of basic research findings regarding language, memory, concept formation, and brain development. If we want to give children a voice, we need to have adequate funding for basic developmental research—even if our individual jobs do not require us to master that information.