Op-ed: Child abuse interviewing requires a sensitive approach – here’s how police should go about conducting them


With a skilled approach, you will be successful at gathering information while keeping the child comfortable

This article was submitted by guest writer Dr. Robert Rail

While a child’s capability to communicate is significantly lessened by their age and additionally their enduring mental and physical ordeal, their body signs can literally “scream out” to those of us who know this language and have the ability to heed and navigate the path of their desperate gestures…

Don’t look for what they are doing in your presence or in the presence of others, but look instead for what they are “not” saying or doing, that a healthy and happy child would be displaying in your presence, with their constant motion and natural rambunctious play like actions.

It is these open and natural inquisitive and playful gestures that are now suppressed and stolen from them by dark past experiences, force and intimidation that they no longer are able to freely and openly exhibit with their natural childhood energy.

Op-ed: Child abuse interviewing requires a sensitive approach - here's how police should go about conducting them
stock photo.

At the start of the interview with the child place two chairs at the side of your desk, with one chair closer to your chair with a small teddy bear on it and the other chair a little bit further away. Do not sit behind your desk but sit casually by the side of your desk by the two chairs.

Take special note which chair the child chooses to sit on and if they just sit down or move the chair closer or further away. We will delve into the significance of the two chairs a bit later.

Are their eyes forced to stare downward defensively by the burden of thoughts of past or ongoing physical and/or mental abuse? Or are they freely looking upward and all around exploring their world of the moment?

Do they stare away from you and others that are talking to them? Or positioning them as far away as they can from any and all physical contact? Or do they make direct eye contact with you and others, when the conversation is directed to them, or is about them, as a happy child would do?

Are the eyes of the child narrowed and defensive, moving from side to side and seldom up, with little or no head movement? Or is the child’s head constantly moving about with the inquisitive curiosity of a child at ease.

Keep these questions at the forefront of your thoughts as you sit with them, and NEVER question them by standing or looming above them. A soft comforting voice will resonate with greater impact with a child than a loud voice that they may associate with a dark past filled with threats or intimidation.

Op-ed: Child abuse interviewing requires a sensitive approach - here's how police should go about conducting them

As you speak with the child pay close attention if they lean forward in their chair, if they do this is a wonderful breakthrough sign of their seeking to be closer to you and thus to the very comments that you have made (It is so unfortunate that so many speak to their pets more kindly than their own children).

If however they either lean back or look down or shift into a fetal position with hands and legs drawn inward, then change the subject to a lighter topic, such as the stuffed animal that is in the room.

Ask the child what the stuffed animal’s name is and how we could help the stuffed animal to be happy… Transference insights may come pouring out at this time so be alert and aware! Remember, if you give a child a stuffed animal to hold you can “never” take it back after talking to them! And it is always good bonding to tell the child the stuffed animal needs a friend and would you be that friend?

Expect the child to lean back in their chair and tightly hug their new friend during your more difficult questions… Now could be the time to gather insight and perspective into the child’s life and conditions relatable day to day with whom they dwell. This is the time the “bear becomes the child and the child becomes the bear”.

As the child is holding the bear ask them to tell you a story about the bear and the bear’s family, and prepare yourself for unimaginable insights! What will flow out of the child’s mind will be composed of either a world they are being subjected to or a world that they dream and “want” to be inclusive of them.

There can be no time limits of any nature to interrupt the words you will hear, just let all of their words flow like a quiet unobstructed stream on a cool evening. Say nothing, and never say yes or no, and only utter a non-judgmental uh huh, and never show any directing emotion or opinion in your facial expressions or body posture, but just constantly display a “relaxed warm friendly gaze at the bear”.

Op-ed: Child abuse interviewing requires a sensitive approach - here's how police should go about conducting them
Stock photo

Now is a good time for a planned “diversion”. Take a very brief break and walk about to get a drink or show the child something fun or interesting… When you have returned and come back to the two chairs, you will be able to see what the child feels about of your interview relationship with them. Did they come back and sit in the same chair?

If it was the chair furthest from you more time and softer questions and conversation will be needed and the aid of professional help is “Never” out of the question. We have so many truly dedicated and outstanding mental health professionals to aid us whenever there is even the slightest indication of their intervention being needed or helpful.

If at first they sat in the farthest chair and now have moved closer to your chair, your questions have established a great step forward in trust with the child and you will be able to very carefully go a little deeper and seek more revealing information, drawing family or school pictures, or anatomical dolls, photos, etc…. Again I ask did they come back and sit in the same chair?

If it was the closest chair they first sat in and now they moved to the chair further away then more time will be needed with softer questions and professional help is never out of the question. If they have again seated themselves close to you congratulations on your outstanding interpersonal skills. I was told a long time ago that you can never fool children and dogs because they can both see into your true heart.

  • Vital Interactive “Gesture” Points
  • Never stand above a child when talking with them
  • Leave the door to the room open at all times
  • No interrupting strangers coming in and out of the room
  • Let them sit where they can see everything
  • Keep a teddy bear (emotional shield) between you both during questioning
  • Sitting in chairs is good, but sitting on the floor is better
  • Never point at the child, and only use palm up (giving) hand gestures
  • Smile with your whole face and not just your teeth
  • Under “Chosen Closeness” The child chooses to move closer to you
  • Do not stare directly into the eyes of the child

And most of all… Laugh a little and play a little, it’s wonderfully contagious

“We have only one future and it rests with the children of the world, without which there is no future for our world”


Dr. Robert Rail, [email protected]

Expert Witness & Author of…

“Reactive Handcuffing Tactics” varropress.com

“Custodial Cuffing & Restraint” varropress.com

“Handcuff Training by HIATT” Diane Publishing

“The Unspoken Dialogue” varropress.com

“Surviving the International War Zone” crcpress.com

Numerous experience based research & Training documents

About the writer: Dr. Robert R. Rail, a retired American Police Officer, and University Instructor, is recognized internationally as one of the foremost experts on terrorism recognition. As a war zone trainer to the International Police Task Force IPTF in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the DOJ in Iraq, Dr. Rail was responsible for designing curriculum and instructing elite police officers from 63 nations who have been deployed to various war zones of the world. He was also named as a physical confrontation advisor and resource training provider to select personnel of NATO and OSCE. Dr. Rail was a resident instructor at the Specialized Advanced Training Unit of the High Institute of the Baghdad Police College in Iraq.


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Op-ed: Child abuse interviewing requires a sensitive approach - here's how police should go about conducting them


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