Help children speak their truth, in their own words
(This is this week’s message from NCA’s CEO, Teresa Huizar.)
Good morning and welcome back. I hope you had a restful and peaceful holiday weekend. We all know the importance of words. What we say—and how we say it—can have far-reaching consequences. And nowhere is this more evident than in the context of forensic interviews. In the ordinary course of events, a yes-no question is commonplace and something to which we give little, if any, thought. But in the world of Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) and multidisciplinary teams, the subject of yes-no questions is one that has engendered many hours of research, scholarly debate, and intense discussion.
This morning, I want to direct your attention to a recent article in the journal Child Maltreatment that adds to the literature and research on the use of yes-no questions in forensic interviews. The article is titled “Children’s Elaborated Responses to Yes-No Questions in Forensic Interviews About Sexual Abuse.”  Although forensic interviewing protocols discourage the use of yes-no questions and encourage the use of open-ended questions instead, yes-no questions are still commonly used—both in forensic interviews and in court settings. And while we already know that younger children answer yes-no questions without elaborating, the researchers in the current study wanted to understand why they do so and what kinds of details they are likely to omit. They also recognized that older children are more likely to spontaneously add more details to their “yes” or “no” responses, and they wanted to find out more about why they do so and about the ways in which they elaborate.
To conduct the study, the researchers analyzed transcripts of 379 forensic interviews with children ages 4-12 who were alleging sexual abuse. All interviews “were conducted between 2004 and 2013 by trained forensic interviewers at five Child Advocacy Centers in Los Angeles County.” Id., p. 4. Based on the analysis, the researchers identified the following types of “elaborated” responses to yes-no questions—that is, responses that add details to a simple yes-no answer and that correspond to different age and developmental levels:
Nominal Corrections: Beginning as early as age 2.5, children may reject false labels for objects and add a correct label. For example, if asked, “Is this a cat?”, they may respond by saying, “No, that’s a dog,” rather than simply saying, “No.”
Emphatic Negations: Here again, even young children may add emphasis, particularly to a “no” response, such as “No, never” or “No way!”
Narrative Elaborations: As expected, these are responses in “which the child provides additional narrative information about the event being discussed.” Such responses become more common with age, both because older children are more adept at providing narrative responses and because older children are better able to utilize their recall memory.
Wh-Elaborations: Some yes-no questions implicitly ask wh-questions, such as “do you know” questions with a wh-word. Older children have a greater ability to understand and respond to implicit questions.
Qualified Elaborations: This is the most complex category, as it requires an understanding on the child’s part that a simple “yes” or “no” is underinformative and misleading, and in which the correct answer can be nuanced. This category is particularly important when asking questions about complex issues like clothing placement. For example, an unqualified response to the question “Were your pants on?” might be entirely misleading if the child’s pants were partially on or an attempt had been made to take them off—details that are significant but are lost with a simple “yes” or “no” response.
Id., pp. 2-3. Using the framework of these different categories, the researchers looked at the responses and at the age differences among the responses. As expected, younger children elaborated less frequently than older children. Interestingly, and contrary to what the researchers expected, it was rare that either the younger or the older children sought clarification for questions when they didn’t know the answer or when the question could not be answered in the yes-no framework within which it was asked. Additionally, although older children sometimes gave “don’t know” responses, and certainly gave them more frequently than younger children, overall, such responses were rare.
Not surprisingly, as children age and their brains develop, they are more likely to provide “narrative elaborations, in which they continued the narrative and spontaneously provided additional details.” Id., p. 8. They were also more likely to provide wh-elaborations, in which they answered implied questions. Finally, the researchers found that older children were “more than twice as likely as younger children to qualify their responses to yes-no questions” by providing context and nuance. Id.
What does all this mean for us, and particularly for forensic interviewers? Beneath all the technical terminology are some important implications for practice, beginning with a simple caveat: “The results highlight the dangers of yes-no questions in forensic interviews, and the advantages of replacing them whenever possible with wh-questions (also known as directives) and invitations, broad open-ended requests for recall.” Id. The researchers also note that sometimes interviewers will try to alleviate the problem of yes-no questions by pairing them with wh-questions or invitations—but even this is practice has pitfalls, as they note that “unlike unelaborated responses to wh-elaborations and narrative elaborations, when children fail to give qualified elaborations, interviewers are unlikely to recognize that their answers are uninformative.” Id., p. 9. Moreover, they point out that “[o]nce they initiate yes-no questioning, it appears difficult for interviewers to return to more open-ended questioning.” Id. If we needed a reminder as to why we should be asking open-ended questions and avoiding yes-no ones, this is it.
As I noted earlier, words matter—and in the case of forensic interviewing, the research behind the words matters, too. I strongly encourage you to download this article and share it with your colleagues and team members—and particularly with your forensic interviewers. Let’s make sure we are doing all that we can to help children speak their own truth, in their own words, and in a way that helps them to heal, recover, and thrive.
As always, I appreciate all your work on behalf of the children and families we serve.
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). To access the article, please sign into CALiO™; then click on Registered CAC Resources; then click on Journals; then click on Child Maltreatment; then click on OnlineFirst; then scroll down.