The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Investigative Interview Protocol is a structured protocol for professionals conducting forensic interviews with suspected child sexual abuse victims. The protocol was developed to translate professional recommendations for interview strategies into operational guidelines practitioners can use while talking to children about alleged sexual abuse incidents.
In child sexual abuse cases there is often no witness other than the child, and no corroborating evidence. The entire case may depend on a child’s recollection of the alleged abuse. Therefore, it is important to elicit accurate information from children to avoid false accusations and ensure justice in these cases (Harris 2010). The protocol’s techniques and strategies were developed based on advances in scientific understanding of children’s memory, communicative skills, social knowledge, and social tendencies, as well as evidence that free recall memory and prompts are likely to elicit accurate information, whereas prompts that depend on recognition processes are associated with more erroneous responses (Lamb et al. 2007).
The NICHD Investigative Interview Protocol can be used by trained professionals who talk to children in sexual abuse investigations, including law enforcement officers, social workers, medical doctors, psychologists, and prosecutors.
The NICHD protocol trains interviewers to use open-ended prompts and guides them through the phases of the investigative interview to increase the amount of information elicited from children’s free recall memory. The protocol has three phases: introductory, rapport building, and substantive or free recall. During the introductory phase, the interviewer introduces him/herself, explains the child’s task (including the need to describe events in detail and tell the truth), and explains the ground rules and expectations (i.e., that the child can and should say “I don’t remember,” “I don’t know,” “I don’t understand,” or correct the interviewer when necessary).
The rapport-building phase is designed to create a relaxed, supportive environment for children and to establish rapport between the interviewer and child. The interviewer may ask the child to talk about events unrelated to the suspected abuse to encourage him or her to be comfortable leading the conversation. This step was designed to familiarize children with the open-ended investigative strategies and techniques that will be used during the next phase of the interview, while demonstrating the specific level of detail expected of them.
During the transition between the pre-substantive and substantive phases of the interview, a series of non-suggestive prompts are used to identify the incident under investigation. The interviewer would only shift to more carefully worded and increasingly focused prompts (in sequence) if the child did not identify the target event. If the child makes an allegation, the substantive or free recall phase begins with an invitation, such as “Tell me everything that happened from the beginning to the end as best as you can remember,” followed by other free-recall prompts, such as “Then what happened?” As soon as the narrative is complete, the interviewer prompts the child with cued invitations based on the child’s response in order to obtain incident-specific information. For example, the interviewer might say, “Earlier you mentioned a [person/object/action]. Tell me everything you can about that.” Or, “You mentioned that he locked the door. Tell me everything that happened right after he locked the door.” The interviewer may reference details mentioned by the child to elicit uncontaminated free recall accounts of the alleged incident. Only after exhaustive open-ended questioning should interviewers begin to ask more direct questions, such as “Where were you when that happened?” If important details are still missing at the end of the interview, interviewers may ask limited option-posing questions (such as yes/no and forced-choice questions referencing new issues the child may have failed to disclose previously).
Throughout the phases of the interview, suggestive utterances that may communicate to the child which response is expected are strongly discouraged. Following initial disclosure, interviewers use a scripted prompt to obtain an indication of the number of incidents experienced by the child (i.e., “one” or “more than one”). From that point on, interviewers are only given general guidance regarding the types of utterances to employ, undesirable practices to avoid, and appropriate open-ended free recall and cued recall prompts to use, without having to follow an inflexible script.
A copy of the NICHD Investigative Interview Protocol (2007 revision) is available in the appendix of an article by Lamb and colleagues (2007). A link to the article is available in the Additional References section.
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Pipe and colleagues (2008) found that significantly more National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Investigative Interview Protocol cases resulted in filed charges compared to pre-NICHD protocol cases. More than half of NICHD protocol interviews (52 percent) resulted in filed charges, while less than half of the pre-NICHD protocol interviews were associated with filed charges (40.7 percent). The odds of filed charges were 1.52 times higher for protocol than for pre-protocol interviews.
For cases that resulted in filed charges (513 out of the original 1,280 sample of cases), possible dispositions included guilty plea, plea reduced, dismissed, found guilty at trial, and found not guilty at trial. For those cases that went to trial (n= 30), significantly more protocol cases resulted in a found guilty at trial outcome than pre-protocol cases. However, there were no statistically significant associations between interview type and other disposition outcomes.
Delays Across the Case Flow
The delays in days from the date of case referral for investigation to the date of interview, from the date of interview to filing of charges, from filing of charges to final disposition, and from referral for investigation to final disposition were compared across the two interview types. Overall results were mixed. There were statistically significant differences between the interview types for delay from referral to interview, with a longer delay for the protocol cases then the pre-protocol cases. However, there was a significantly longer delay for pre-protocol cases in regard to the filing of charges. There were no statistically significant differences between interview types for delays from filing of charges to disposition or referral to disposition.