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October 2013: Interviewing Children with Disabilities

Expanding on our August newsletter, this month we will take a closer look at interviewing strategies for professionals who serve children with disabilities. The first article highlights our webinar presented by Pauline Lucero-Esquivel, entitled “Interviewing Children with Disabilities II.”  As a follow-up to the webinar conducted in August, Pauline provides audiences with an examination of the various stages involved when interviewing children with disabilities. Our second article, from the Sanford Health Dakota Children’s Advocacy Center, provides an overview of their recent Accessible Justice Conference and Accessibility Toolkit available for professionals who serve children with disabilities who have been abused. Lastly, Detective Bill Marshall addresses key elements in interviewing children with disabilities and investigating abuse of children with disabilities when ethical violations are alleged.


Webinar: Interviewing Children with Disabilities Part II

MECP invites you to view this month’s webinar with Pauline Lucero-Esquivel, MA, LMSW, LPCC. Following August’s webinar on Interviewing Children with Disabilities, Pauline returned this month to further examine interviewing techniques and methods. Pauline uses her experiences and training with the National Children’s Advocacy Center to discuss pre-interview protocols for multidisciplinary team (MDT) members, stages of interviewing and considerations for working with children with disabilities, and suggestions for modifications based on jurisdiction and MDT needs. To view the recording of this webinar, please visit MECP’s Webinar Page here.


Building a Better Model to Serve Child Victims with Disabilities

Provided By: Paula Condol, Sanford Health Dakota Children’s Advocacy Center

“In 2011, the Sanford Health Dakota Children’s Advocacy Center formed a taskforce to address the alarming statistic that children with disabilities are 3.44 times more likely to be victims of some type of abuse than children without disabilities [1]. Children’s Advocacy Centers across the country are known for their collaborative work with other multidisciplinary team agencies to address and intervene more effectively in child abuse investigations. However, we were alarmed also to find that less than 1% of our center’s cases involved a child with a disability.

Our statistics are not unique. From the start of an incident through the criminal justice system, children with disabilities often are not given equal access to services. Recently, the Spectrum Institute Disability and Abuse Project released a report on the 2012 National Survey of Abuse of People with Disabilities and found that more than 70% of people with disabilities who took the survey reported they had been victims of abuse and more than 90% said they had experienced abuse on multiple occasions, more than half reporting being abused more than 20 times. Approximately 63% stated that they did not report the abuse, and of those, one-third stated that they did not know how to report abuse. Even when the abuse was reported, more than one-half stated that nothing had happened. Less than 10% of the alleged perpetrators were ever arrested and only 39% of the victims ever received therapy [2].

To address this disparity, the task force looked to the state to make a larger impact. This past September, the Children’s Advocacy Centers of North Dakota (CACND), through grants from the Otto Bremer Foundation and the Midwest Children’s Advocacy Center, sponsored an Accessible Justice Conference. The purpose of the conference was to increase the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes of service providers and other professionals who work with children with disabilities who have been abused. The conference featured experts from across the country who presented on investigating, prosecuting, and treating survivors with disabilities, as well as related topics, and was attended by approximately 120 people from across the United States. The conference was a huge success, and there are hopes to replicate a similar conference in the near future in Chicago, IL.

Along with the conference, CACND was able to debut the creation of the Accessibility Toolkit. The Accessibility Toolkit is a Web site created by CACND, in collaboration with coalition of professionals from around the nation, to help multidisciplinary professionals better serve children with disabilities who have been abused. This Web site brings together a number of resources to aid professionals and is a “work in progress” inviting greater dialogue and collaboration among professionals serving kids. Professionals are encouraged to contact us if they have additional resources they would like to share.”


Interviewing Children with Disabilities

Provided by: William Marshall, Special Victims Unit at the Spokane Police Department

The Law Enforcement and Child Protective Services Perspective

““My victim is developmentally delayed. What am I supposed to do with this case?” I have heard this question many times during my years in the Special Victims Unit and when presenting at conferences around the country. When an investigator gets a new case and finds the victim or other participant in the case has a listed disability, there are often several concerns that come up immediately. The first concern is that the investigator is not sure he/she has the skill set to properly interview victims with special needs. Depending on the protocol and resources in the region, the investigator may have to conduct his or her own child forensic interview. Best practice, of course, is to have an independent child forensic interviewer do the interview at a Child Advocacy Center.

The second concern is whether the victim’s disability may affect memory. And the third and often unspoken concern is that the prosecutor or court may feel the victim lacks credibility as a witness because of the nature or severity of the disability. A successful interview with the victim will address these concerns, or at least clarify the situation, and will also benefit the overall investigation. This article will provide three considerations in setting up a successful interview with a special needs victim.

Understand Communication Habits

A person with special needs communicates with someone daily. Determine who these communicators are and speak with them. They will be knowledgeable and may have different perspectives on the child and how the child interacts. For example, school personnel may share that academically a 14-year-old victim is at the 2nd-grade level but socially he is at peer level, but the parents may be adamant that the child is at the 2nd-grade level in all areas. Parents and teachers will also know if the child was ever sent to sex education classes or ever taught about consenting or not consenting to sexual activity with another person. Investigators may also want to contact coaches, therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and caregivers. In your communications, try to obtain hard copies of IQ scores, individual education plans, and official diagnoses.

Determine how the child communicates. Even if it is just to take care of basic needs, there is some form of communication—verbal, written, signing, or a combination of modes—that the child uses to let caretakers, family members, therapists, or educators know what they need, want, dislike, or think. The interviewer can glean essential information about the child’s communicative style from these people and build a basis for a successful interview that provides the victim the opportunity to share their experiences without additional trauma.

If time and protocol allow, the investigator can set up a “meet and greet” or preliminary interview with the child. This gives the victim and investigator a chance to meet face to face and to discuss the basics of the case, address the concerns of both, and settle on the best format for an interview. The child may well be the best source of information that exists.

Be Aware of Life Circumstances and Medication

Learn what is going on in the child’s life other than the case circumstances. I had a case recently in which a victim with intellectual delays came in for an interview scheduled by her caretaker. What the caretaker forgot was that the appointment immediately prior to our interview was a meeting where the victim gave up custody of her three-year-old son. When I learned of this, I changed the interview to a brief “meet and greet” and rescheduled the interview for a later time.

Learn what medications a victim is taking, whether prescribed, over the counter, or even off the street. Pay special attention to anything that might alter or influence the victim’s communication capabilities, attention span, mental clarity, and ability to endure the interview. Schedule the interview at a time when the medication(s) are affecting the victim the least or are helping them to perform at their best.

Timing the interview appropriately and allowing for a child’s communication methods and medications will create the highest chances for a successful interview.

Set the Stage for the Interview, and Follow Up

Again, the best practice is to use a trained child forensic interviewer at a neutral site, preferably a Child Advocacy Center, and to digitally record the interview. However, this arrangement might increase a developmentally delayed child’s stress or anxiety level, so set up the interview to maximize the child’s comfort and ability to recall and communicate. Consider environmental factors: does the client need a quiet, private setting or an open area, and what about comforting items such as a special blanket or music? Should an advocate or interpreter or friend be present? The Americans with Disabilities Act requires we accommodate a child’s needs. Common sense says we need to do this to bring about a successful interview.

Remember, the skilled investigator should maximize the chances for success without causing undue stress on or re-victimizing the child. If you are using a child forensic interviewer, share what you have learned about the child’s communication methods and medications, if appropriate for your region’s protocols. Not all protocols allow for the interviewer to be apprised of the investigation and to read police or child protective services reports. Know your region’s protocols.

The investigation continues immediately once you have completed this interview. Do whatever you can to verify and corroborate the victim’s statement. Gather and examine physical evidence, along with circumstantial evidence. If necessary, medical exams should be completed and sexual assault exam kits sent to the crime lab. If at all possible, visit, examine, and photograph the crime scene. Interview any witnesses and then, last but not least, conduct the final suspect interview. This interview requires as much attention to detail, planning, and care as the one with the victim.

Investigating Cases Involving Children with Disabilities When There are Ethical Dilemmas

Ethical dilemmas in child maltreatment cases are very difficult and can affect the outcome of the case. The care, custody, and safety of children are of paramount importance both to loved ones and to professionals dealing with the case. No one wants to make a wrong decision here. When combining all of the factors from a standard child maltreatment case in addition to a victim, suspect, or victim and suspect with intellectual delays or developmental disabilities, difficulties can compound.

For example, a disability may necessitate that the client have intimate physical contact on a daily basis with the caregiver. If the client indicates she was touched on her “private areas” by the caregiver. The question is, “Was the touching sexual in nature, done for sexual gratification, or as part of the daily care of the client?” For law enforcement to be involved, there is often an accusation of a crime. If there is an accusation, and the accused party denies any criminal activity and the victim does not have the ability to define or give an opinion on the activity, only say that it occurred, then a resolution will be very difficult to find. If there are no witnesses, no physical evidence, and no other information to assist the investigation, then how will the case be decided?

Again, suppose parents claim that a person close in age and similar in disability had sexual contact with their child. When the victim, who is too young to give consent, is interviewed, she says she likes the boy and wanted to participate in the contact. Her parents are adamant that the child does not have the capacity to give consent because she does not know what “sex” is. The accused party is interviewed, his statement matches the victim’s, and his parents also say he does not have the capacity to give consent and add that they think he was the victim. Questions abound. Is there a crime? Is either party capable of giving consent? Is either party capable of forming criminal intent? What is the level of sexual knowledge of either party?

Questions often arise in the context of larger conflicts. These can include custody disputes between biological parents, adoptive/foster and biological parents, an abusive parent and a non-offending parent, or even an agency focused on the care and placement of the child and an agency tasked with bringing the offender to justice.

Law enforcement agencies cannot investigate the matter if there is no crime or capacity to commit one. If there is still a question whether the case should be charged, then the prosecutor’s office should review it. The prosecutor is ultimately responsible for determining whether to file charges, in my jurisdiction.

Other agencies involved with the care of the victim and investigation, such as child protective services, should discuss (probably with the parents) if the supervision was appropriate and what can be done to prevent future incidents. A multidisciplinary team can facilitate information sharing and assist in final resolution of the case.

Therapists, counselors, special education professionals, and other experts can shed light on these issues. Most experts are happy to consult by phone or email on these cases, and such consultations have shed light on the capabilities/capacity of clients and how to gather more helpful information from them.

In cases of possible child maltreatment, ultimately the best path to choose is the one that protects the victim, gathers the facts about what did or did not happen, and do all this in the most professional and unbiased way.

Finally, there is always the ethical thing to do. If you personally know the parties involved in a case you are assigned to, have the case assigned to someone else. You should do this no matter what your position is or how short staffed your investigative unit might be. Send it out of jurisdiction if you have to, but do not compromise your ethical position.

When a case is contentious or complicated, remember: Do a complete, independent investigation, and if possible have it reviewed by a competent and independent investigator, MDT, or prosecutor to support your decisions. Do not take the easy path, stay professional, know your own responsibilities, and be thorough.”

About William Marshall

Detective William Marshall has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience and holds a degree in Criminal Justice from Eastern Washington University. He is a certified child interview specialist in the Special Victims Unit at the Spokane Police Department, which he joined in 2002. He has investigated more than 1,000 sexual assaults and many child physical abuse/neglect cases, and tracked registered sex offenders. Detective Marshall specifically handles cases with developmentally delayed victims and has developed courses of instruction for that type of investigation. He presents on several different investigative and interview courses throughout the United States and internationally.

Detective Marshall is currently the Vice President for the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, a national organization supporting professionals who serve children and families affected by violence and child maltreatment.


Upcoming Events

January 26–31, 2014: The 28th Annual San Diego International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment. The Chadwick Center proudly announces the 28th Annual San Diego International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment. The San Diego conference offers an agenda of evidence- and research-based topics, as well as current thinking and new ideas. International experts and practitioners in the field will explain science-based interventions using their practical experience and real-world solutions. For more information, please visit www.sandiegoconference.org.


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[1] Sullivan, P. &. Knutson, J. (2000). Maltreatment and disabilities: A population-based epidemiological study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24(10), 1257–1273.

[2] Baladerian, N. J., Coleman, T. F., & Stream, J. (2013). 2012 National Survey on Abuse of People with Disabilities: Victims and Their Families Speak Out. Spectrum Institute Disability and Abuse Project. http://www.disabilityandabuse.org/.