When interviewing child abuse victims with disabilities, choose a quiet space, slow the interview process, assess for understanding, and be flexible with communication.
Choose the Space
Meet the child with a disability in a physical space that is:
- quiet and has minimal distractions, including noise, light, interruptions, clutter, and people coming in and out of the room
- well-lit, and has a clear path to the door
- private, so that people passing by cannot see into the room or hear what is said
- accessible, and provides adequate space for children who use wheelchairs and for interpreters, as well as accessible bathrooms, doors, and elevators
- comfortable and supports the child in feeling safe
Also have materials available for children who are tactile and like to touch things, such as stress balls, Play-doh, stuffed animals.
Slow the Process
Approach children with disabilities much as you would any other child who may have been abused or neglected. You may need to slow the process and learn from their responses. If you have questions, ask.
Identify safe people who can inform you about the child – preferably someone they have a relationship with and trust. Besides the children themselves, sources of information include non-abusive parents and family members; teachers; doctors; occupational, physical, or speech therapists; counselors; friends; or others.
Reassure the child that they are not in trouble.
Speak as you would to any other child. Use plain English (or the child’s original language) in your typical voice and at your normal pitch and volume. Address the child directly.
Stay at eye level – some children with disabilities need a clear view of your face. Maintain your usual eye contact, unless it distresses them.
Avoid touching or crowding the child. Some children are uncomfortable being touched or being too close to others.
Be as relaxed and casual as possible. All children may say what they think you want to hear, but children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to social cues and may be taught to be compliant with authority from a young age.
Assess the Child’s Understanding
- Discuss truth and lies, and try to establish the child’s understanding of both.
- Observe how the child uses language, along with their skills for understanding and responding to questions, attention span, and reactions to certain topics.
- Assess the child’s communication abilities by asking them to write or spell their name, sing the ABCs, give birthday date, name colors.
- Tailor your questions to the child’s developmental stage, rather than age.
(Adapted in part from Hoffman-Rosenfeld, 2004, & National Children's Advocacy Center.)
Children with disabilities will have varying abilities to answer questions. Ask short, simple questions in plain language. Use one idea per sentence. Other adaptations:
- Concrete questions. Some children may not be able to answer abstract questions that start with why, how, and if. If so, try more concrete questions that start with who, what, where, and when.
- Use child’s routine. Children may not know days of the week or how to tell time. Use their daily routine to help set the time and day. Examples: "Tell me what happened after you came home from school." "Share with me what happened before you went to physical therapy."
- Pictures. Using pictures for multiple choice questions can be effective for some children who do not read or have difficulty with memory.
- Yes/No questions. Children with some disabilities may only be able to answer yes/no questions, either by directly saying yes or no, by tapping a pencil yes, or by giving a thumbs up/down for yes or no. Yes/no questions are useful for children with limited communication, intellectual disabilities, or speech that is difficult to understand. This method can be considered leading, so follow up with additional yes/no questions for accuracy.
- Writing. A child who is unable to verbalize what happened may be able to provide written testimony.
(This section adapted in part from Office for Victims of Crime; Shelton; Hoffman-Rosenfeld, 2004; Modell; and D. Velasco, personal communication, July 17, 2014.)
Be Flexible with Communication
If you are having difficulty understanding a child, attempt multiple means of communication: speaking, writing, drawing, indication of yes/no. If needed, it's okay to say you are having trouble understanding, and ask the child to repeat.
If communication is a significant barrier, consider bringing in someone who is not the alleged abuser who knows and can communicate with the child. However, parents and others may influence what the child has to say, whether they intend to or not.
Use concrete phrases and avoid metaphors. Children with some disabilities may be more concrete and have difficulties with abstract thinking.
- Treat each child according to their chronological age.
- Match the child’s vocabulary, syntax, and grammar.
- Use the child’s own words for body parts, and clarify what they mean when they describe an action. Make sure you and the child have the same meaning for words like rape, genitals, and other words.
- Use proper names for people, locations, and things to avoid confusion.
- If the child is repeating everything being said, be patient and try to reduce their anxiety.
Address the Child’s Stress
If the child is distressed about being separated from a parent or caregiver, slow down and consider allowing the caregiver in the room for a few minutes to chat. In some cases, this may be the only thing that happens during a first meeting.
During times of high stress, the child’s distress will escalate, which may make it difficult for them to follow conversations or speak. Some children will withdraw, others may have involuntary movements or aggressive, frightened, or defensive behaviors. Be familiar with trauma-informed responses to children who have experienced abuse or neglect. You may also need to ask the non-abusive parent how you can help the child feel safer and calmer.
What Can the Child’s Behavior Tell You?
When a child seems to be trying to communicate through behavior, ask yourself these questions:
- Is this child showing signs of distress? (Such as withdrawing, distracting, fidgeting, humming, groaning, rocking, tapping.)
- Are there some things about this environment that may be particularly distressing or upsetting?
- What is happening that may be distressing?
- Are things changing or moving too fast?
- Could this interview/interaction take place across several sessions?
- Does this child need some form of comfort? What has the care provider suggested?
- How am I evaluating/interpreting this child’s behavior?
- Does this child need to take a sensory break every so often by rocking, spinning, chewing something crunchy, holding a weighted blanket?
If the child’s distress is increasing, offer a break.