Assessing interviews and recall in children

Lay Summary 

We need look no further than recent headline news, "Alberta teen found not guilty in shooting death of abusive father" to see the importance of the proposed research. Children are now frequent participants in the legal system as well as recipients of attention by social services agencies who have the task of protecting children from dangerous living conditions. A crucial issue faced by police, lawyers, social workers, and judges is obtaining information from young children that is untainted by interviewer questions. Unfortunately, children are all too susceptible to suggestion, coercion, and social constraints such as agreeableness even when they don't understand the question. We have long known that children's open-ended and free recall is typically accurate, but when questioning becomes more specific, accuracy decreases, and probability of interviewer influence becomes an important concern. However, children often provide little information in free recall so most is instead elicited by specific questioning. Thus, a major goal of forensically-oriented developmental research is trying to find ways of increasing the amount of information provided by children in free or very open-ended recall, prior to the beginning of specific questions.


In prior research we have found that a streamlined version of an established method of fostering children's open-ended recall, namely the Narrative Elaboration Technique (NET) developed by Saywitz et al., is just as effective as use of the original NET technique. The original procedure, while substantially improving children's open-ended recall, requires considerable time-consuming pretraining and is thus less likely to be used in the real world. The streamlined version simply incorporates target open-ended NET questions into the beginning of an interview.


The objective of the proposed research is to explore using the streamlined NET questions as an enhancement that can be added to the highly respected and increasingly used National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Interview Protocol. This added technique could significantly increase children's open-ended recall in the initial phase of their interviews. A related issue that has considerable impact is the degree to which people believe children's testimony. Variants of interview procedure (i.e., with versus without the enhanced NET questions) will be explored, since our objective is not only to improve children's open-ended recall but their believability or credibility. Thus, an enhanced NICHD Interview Protocol could be very useful for those involved in both forensic (police, judges, lawyers, and juries), and social services (social workers, judges) investigations.


Two other issues will be addressed, and these relate to the impact of parents on both children's reports and their credibility. Parents are typically the first ones to interview their children when forensically relevant events occur (such as witnessing a crime or reporting non-parental abuse). Yet we know little about how these initial interviews by parents affect children's later reports. Prior research suggests that this could be a potential source of child error, and we need to understand more about how serious this is, and how parents' prior assumptions may affect how they question their children. In addition, we need to learn much more about how parental coaching (either helping children provide a convincing true account or, unfortunately in some circumstances such as parent custody issues, to provide a false or fabricated report) can affect how likely people are to believe the child. Our findings will assist professionals such as police, social workers and judges make decisions that will be in the best interests of children, and our society.


Adapted from

Social Sciences And Humanities Research Council
Newfoundland and Labrador
Child Protection
Industry Sectors 
Legal Services
Start date 
1 Jan 2016
End date 
31 Dec 2021