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.
Pipe and colleagues (2008) examined whether the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Investigative Interview Protocol had any impact on child sexual abuse case outcomes within the justice system. Specifically, the study explored whether the introduction of the NICHD protocol influenced the likelihood that an investigation led to a suspect being arrested with criminal charges filed by the district attorney (DA). For cases that resulted in filed charges, the study examined the outcomes as the case proceeded through the criminal justice system. Time delays between important decision points during the investigative and judicial process were also examined to determine whether the introduction of the NICHD protocol led to faster case processing.
The forensic interviews included in the study were conducted at the Salt Lake City (Utah) Children’s Justice Center (CJC) by police detectives who specialized in conducting forensic interviews with children. Specifically, the study included interviews of 11 experienced police officers in two police departments who were extensively trained by researchers on the NICHD protocol.
The outcome of cases in which investigative interviews were conducted using the NICHD Investigative Interview Protocol in the period following its implementation were compared to the outcomes of cases in which interviews were conducted by the same interviewers immediately prior to the introduction of the protocol. The final sample included investigative interviews conducted with 1,280 alleged child victims of sexual abuse. Children were between the ages of 2.8 and 13.97 years and had been referred to the same police departments during the period before (1994 to mid-September 1997) and after (mid-September 1997 to 2000) the implementation of the NICHD protocol.
The protocol treatment group included 729 cases and the pre-protocol comparison group included 551 cases. The treatment group was 70.6 percent female, 85.7 percent white, 10.1 percent Hispanic, and 4.2 percent of another race. The comparison group was 73.3 percent female, 83.2 percent white, 9.4 percent Hispanic, and 7.3 percent of another race. The type of abuse reported by children in both groups included exposure (5.4 percent), touch (59.3 percent), and penetration (35.3 percent). Suspects in both groups were overwhelmingly male (93.6 percent), adult age (59.8 percent), and either immediate family (36 percent) or familiar to the victim but not related (41.6 percent). There were no significant differences between the two groups, except in age. A greater proportion of interviews was conducted with 2.8- to 4-year-old alleged victims in the comparison group, and a greater proportion of interviews was conducted with 5- to 6-year-olds in the treatment group.
Data was collected on case outcomes that included all points of decision making during the case flow in the criminal justice procedures, from case referral to case disposition. The study specifically focused on cases in which criminal charges were filed by the DA against the suspect as part of the investigative process and which were carried forward to the criminal justice system for prosecution, as well as disposition with respect to convictions, acquittals, or charges being dismissed. Data was also gathered on time delays that elapsed between crucial decision points in the investigative and judicial processes. Information was taken from child protection reports, police reports, CJC intake forms, and the CJC database.
A series of univariate logistic regression analyses were conducted to test the relationship between predictor variables and the dependent variable, followed by multivariate logistic regression analysis to examine the unique effects of predictors that reached statistical significance in the univariate analysis, controlling for other variables.
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.