Saturday, February 26, 2011

Interviewing Children, the Perils and Pitfalls

In view of my recent discussion on SCOTUS hearing the Camreta case, I have occasion to discuss the prevailing practice by child welfare agencies of excluding parents, even non-offending parents from observing agency interviews with their children.

Many of the briefs in support of the parents in this case advocate the use of child advocacy centers for conducting interviews of children who are the subject of a child abuse or neglect investigation.They state the prevailing wisdom that the persons who conduct these interviews are highly trained experts who are less likely to taint the interview and more likely to elicit accurate information.

I will concede that this is the premise behind these centers, but that is only the theory. In practice, they commit the same errors that caseworkers commit. The same errors described in our subject case.

I have ample occasion to review the interview videos from these child advocacy centers. They ask leading questions, they repeat the questions over and over, they give verbal and non-verbal cues to the children, they use discredited techniques and props such as anatomically correct dolls, toys and drawing (the child does not distinguish between serious work and play when toys are used---sheesh), they discuss the facts with the child before/during the interview with the camera off, they have the "correct" facts written on a board off camera so the child can "remember" what she is supposed to say in front of the camera, and much more.

But let's assume that they didn't get it wrong, or make any mistakes in their technique. There is another very important factor that is totally ignored as significant in these interviews. The child's language and the family language.

I once accompanied a non-custodial mother to visit her children in another state. She had not seen her children for five years. As her visits progressed through the course of a few days, and because I was intimately immersed in their interactions, I noticed the parents and children quickly slipped into their familiar family language.

They used unfamiliar shorthand that they all understood, but which I did not necessarily grasp fully. They had esoteric terms to describe their memories and situations that were unique to their shared relationship, and not entirely consistent with common English usage, but which were meaningful by virtue of the context of their intimately shared experiences as a family.

This language of the family went deeper than funny words to describe body parts, it was a contextual language to which outsiders were not fluent. It was a style of interacting and communicating that formed a bond of understanding that survived years of separation. The family language forms as the relationship forms, and is added to when the children begin to contribute their baby language to the matrix of this highly personal communication. It evolves with the family's stages. But even as teens, these children still communicated with their family according to the language of their childhood family.

This is not the same thing you see when a family is in public. This is private, and increases emotional intimacy between the members of the family by virtue of enhanced understanding of the matters being communicated.

Then along comes an arrogant case worker who is clueless about this family's language, and interviews a young child. The young child is being probed about intimate family matters, and responds in the family's private language. He says something benign and this clod of a caseworker translates it using common usage, and viola', we have a disclosure. This is not speculation. I have seen it happen over and over. The case workers universally turn a deaf ear to the explanations of the parents.

If a family member where present to translate, this tragedy could have been avoided. Many times, the caseworker doesn't have the proper context to interpret what a child is saying. And a child is severely handicapped by virtue of his immaturity and cannot say what he means in the common language. . .remember, he is still learning the common language. His first real intense exposure to the common language is when he goes to school. He cannot understand it completely, nor translate quite yet, but his parents can, perhaps his older siblings can.

I have seen many of these cases turn sour on nothing more than erroneous translations of the child's use of the family language, or on the caseworkers use of the common language which the child misunderstands because he doesn't fully grasp the common language.

Since accurate communication is so critical to the proper administration of these cases, one would think that those who administer these cases would be interested in insuring that the child and the interviewer are actually communicating in the same language. One can only conclude, that if their expertise has not revealed this flaw to them, or if they haven't recognized this particular problem, they aren't interested in accurate communications.

Before you scoff about this family language observation, think about this. Lawyer have their own language, and they use it to trip up witnesses on the stand. The witness answers with his interpretation of the common usage of the word, the lawyer takes his admission as applying to the legal usage of the word. Medicine, science, law, youth, music . . .everything has it's own esoteric language, and we learn multiple usages of our native language depending where we live various portions of our lives. That the family has a personal dialect of the common language isn't so very far-fetched.

It would serve the children better if the professionals recognized this and conducted their investigations with a more sensitive ear.

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Leave the emotions, propaganda and rhetoric at the door. This blogger is only interested in intelligent, logical, well-thought out, factually based comments which are on-topic, indicating the writer has an open mind and a mature ability to reason.