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EVAWI > Resources > Best Practices > FAQs > Interview Techniques
Q Should I begin an interview by discussing trivial, unrelated topics?
Q What types of questions do you prefer investigators not ask a victim during the initial interview?  Generally, what tends to be more harmful vs. helpful?
Q Based on the research, is there a recommended time frame for investigators to wait before conducting a detailed interview of a sexual assault victim? What time is needed for the victim’s neurochemistry to return to a more normal state?
Q Do the same time frames for interviewing apply when victims are reporting a ‘cold’ sexual assault – in other words, when victims report months or years later?
Q Does the neurobiology of trauma have implications for how many times a victim should be interviewed?
Q Would it be better to ask a victim to write down their memories of the sexual assault first, before conducting an interview?
Q Should Reid interrogation techniques and other strategies for detecting deception such as SCAN (Scientific Content Analysis) be used when interviewing the victim?
A Should I begin an interview by discussing trivial, unrelated topics?

It is natural to spend a limited amount of time on benign topics during the initial contact with a victim, and then ease into the real purpose of the interview. However, if this is done, we recommend it be very limited.  Some people even go so far as to recommend that the interviewer establish rapport by seeking an area of common interest with the victim. However, we advise against such an approach because it can offend adult victims to focus on trivialities at such a critical and traumatic moment in their lives. Better ways to build rapport include communicating empathy, allowing victims to vent, and acknowledging the victim’s ordeal before transitioning to the real purpose of the interview. Victims usually have a number of pressing questions and concerns at the beginning of an interview, and they are typically anxious to get the whole thing over with, so it is simply not appropriate to put them in a position where they need to “make small talk” rather than addressing their real needs and starting the interview.

A What types of questions do you prefer investigators not ask a victim during the initial interview? Generally, what tends to be more harmful vs. helpful?

For very detailed information on the effective strategies for interviewing victims of sexual assault, please see the OnLine Training Institute module entitled, Interviewing the Victim: Techniques Based on the Realistic Dynamics of Sexual Assault.

A Based on the research, is there a recommended time frame for investigators to wait before conducting a detailed interview of a sexual assault victim? What time is needed for the victim’s neurochemistry to return to a more normal state?

It can take days or weeks for a person’s neurochemistry to return to normal following a traumatic experience. However, the acute phase subsides within a matter of days. Therefore, we generally recommend waiting 2 or 3 days following a sexual assault to conduct a detailed interview of the victim. Yet, these are simply the most general recommendations; the actual decision must be made on a case-by-case basis.

For example, victims are often sexually assaulted late at night. By the time the police are involved, or victims seeks medical assistance, they have often been up all night Victims may also wait some time for officers to respond, to begin the preliminary interview, or for forensic examiners to arrive to start the medical forensic exam. By the time the process is complete, and victims finally arrive home, they are likely to be physically and emotionally exhausted. If the investigator then calls in the morning, shortly after receiving the case, the victim will have had little to no sleep.

Clearly, victims need some time to rest and recover after reporting and participating in the preliminary interview and/or medical forensic exam. The morning after is not the appropriate time to ask them to come into the police station for a detailed follow-up interview. Yet this is often exactly what happens. Law enforcement has historically been trained to believe that the detailed interview must be done as quickly as possible, to gather information while it is still fresh in the mind of the victim – and to question the victim about any statements that might appear inconsistent or otherwise problematic. Given this all-too-common scenario, it really shouldn't be surprising that so many victims are unable to participate effectively in the detailed interview. If we push them to do the impossible, they will not be able to provide information that is as helpful as it could be – or they will fail to show up and withdraw their participation altogether.

A better approach is to provide victims time to rest and recover, and have the investigator only make an initial contact by calling the victim within 24 hours. The purpose of this initial contact is for investigators to introduce themselves and schedule the detailed interview at a time and place that is most convenient for the victim. The timeframe for this interview can be flexible. While 2-3 days following the initial report is offered as a general guideline, the actual schedule will depend on the individual victim.

The investigator can then use the intervening days to prepare for the detailed interview, by reviewing the initial reports from the preliminary investigation and the medical forensic examination, as well as any crime scene reports, evidence, and/or witness statements that were documented. The timeframe can thus be helpful for the investigator as well as the victim – both will be better able to successfully contribute in the detailed follow-up interview when it eventually takes place.

We address this question in detail in a training bulletin entitled, When to Conduct an Exam or Interview. The bottom line is that we should decide when to interview a sexual assault victim by focusing on what we can do to help her/him participate in the process.

In general, we believe that our communities could go a long way toward improving our response to sexual assault if we simply operated from the premise that we want victims to be involved in our response systems, so we should do whatever we reasonably can to help them do so. Sometimes we get so focused on our own policies and procedures that we forget to make accommodations that would encourage victims to participate, even if they entail some compromises that are less than ideal. For example, we often present victims with decisions that are framed as "all or nothing" and "now or never" – and we are then disappointed when they decline our services, because they feel overwhelmed. A better way is to reframe the choices we present victims with, so they can take the process one step at a time, in a manner that is far more consistent with their traumatic victimization and coping response.
A Do the same time frames for interviewing apply when victims are reporting a ‘cold’ sexual assault – in other words, when victims report months or years later?

There are very few ‘hard and fast rules’ when it comes to interviewing a victim of sexual assault. For many victims who report a sexual assault months or years later, it is because something triggered the desire to do so, and this triggering event or experience is also likely to rekindle some degree of traumatic response. The act of reporting and being interviewed by law enforcement will also cause the victim to re-experience the sexual assault on some level. Therefore these and other factors should be taken into account when deciding when the best time is to schedule the detailed interview. For some victims, this may be at the time of reporting. They may feel that they finally worked up the courage to contact law enforcement and so they just want the interview behind them. Others may need to provide some basic information during the initial contact and then schedule a more detailed interview for later. A follow-up interview is almost always needed (see below). Many victims will also have logistical issues to consider when scheduling the interview. All of these can be taken into account when making a decision on a case-by-case basis.

Some of this same information is covered in the training bulletin entitled, When to Conduct an Exam or Interview. The bottom line is that we should focus on what we can do to help victims participate in the process and provide the best information they can.

A Does the neurobiology of trauma have implications for how many times a victim should be interviewed?

When it comes to the neurobiology of trauma, the primary implication for how often to interview the victim is to keep in mind that any detailed interview of a sexual assault victim will re-trigger some level of traumatic response. This is because the process requires victims to re-experience the event on some level. Therefore, we should generally strive to minimize the number of times a victim is interviewed in detail. Some professionals have taken this recommendation too far, however, and interpreted it to mean that victims should only be interviewed once – or that investigators should be very reluctant to re-contact victims to ask additional questions. In fact, such follow-up interviews are necessary to conduct a comprehensive investigation. To do their jobs well – and provide victims with the professional service they deserve – investigators will often need to re-contact them to ask more questions, as additional evidence and information is uncovered during the course of an ongoing investigation. The purpose of any follow-up interviews should be to gather additional information and clarify any questions, not to go over the same information again.

The goal is therefore to reduce the number of unnecessary professional contacts that take place with a victim and any professional – either because the case is being screened or the victim is being “handed off” to another professional due to a shift change, job rotation, etc. To illustrate, law enforcement agencies should have policies in place that provide their personnel with the resources needed to complete thorough sexual assault investigations. All law enforcement agencies should also place a priority on their sexual assault calls to avoid having responding officers called away.

Another approach that is often taken to this question is to reduce the number of interviews by conducting one jointly – with the law enforcement officer responding to the call and the health care professional conducting the medical forensic exam. This can be an effective strategy as long as it is recognized that only part of the interview can be conducted jointly. Both the officer and health care provider will need to talk with the victim separately, to gather information that is specific to their professional purpose. For more information, please see the FAQ on Joint Interviews in the Best Practices section of our website.

A Would it be better to ask a victim to write down their memories of the sexual assault first, before conducting an interview?

It is not necessarily ‘better’ to ask victims to write down their memories of the sexual assault before they are interviewed, but it may be appropriate in some instances. There are very few hard and fast rules when it comes to interviewing sexual assault victims. The goal is to help victims provide as much information as they can, and this may be accomplished in different ways for different victims. If there is a victim who can best provide information by writing it down, then this can be a perfectly appropriate strategy.

However, an important distinction needs to be made between the type of writing that most people would think of as ‘journaling’ versus a written or even sworn ‘statement.’ When we refer to having anyone write down their memories, we use the term journaling, where victims write about their memories, thoughts, feelings, and reflections about the sexual assault – the kinds of things they will often write about on their own in their diary. This type of writing can be very helpful for victims therapeutically, and it can also be used very effectively as part of a sexual assault investigation and prosecution.

If the issue is not raised by the investigator, however, many victims will write in their own personal diaries, and then everything in the victim’s diary can become discoverable – not just those entries related to the sexual assault. For this reason, it is important for investigators to address journaling with victims proactively. In fact, it is a good idea for investigators to have inexpensive composition notebooks available to give victims, clearly advising them that they should write down their thoughts and memories to later share with the investigator and the prosecutor.

In contrast, we advocate very strongly against the practice of asking victims to write out their formal statement. Most victims have no idea what types of information will be helpful for the investigation, so it is not fair to ask them to filter their entire experience and decide what they will and will not write about – let alone how they will write about it. A written statement also does not provide the opportunity for investigators to build a relationship of trust and partnership with victims, and create the type of environment that will facilitate disclosures about even the most intimate, shameful, or humiliating aspects of the sexual assault.

The bottom line is this: There is simply no substitute for a high quality, in-person interview. While journaling can provide therapeutic benefits for victims and corroborative information for investigators and prosecutors, it should always be seen as a supplement to the interview and larger investigative process – not a replacement.

A Should Reid interrogation techniques and other strategies for detecting deception such as SCAN (Scientific Content Analysis) be used when interviewing the victim?

Historically, some law enforcement investigators have used Reid interrogation techniques with sexual assault victims and asked (or even required) victims to submit to a polygraph examination or other technique for “lie detection.” These could include computerized voice stress analysis (CVSA), handwriting analysis, statement validity analysis (such as SCAN), or other techniques. Yet such techniques are clearly inappropriate with sexual assault victims – both because they are ineffective for the purpose of “lie detection” and also because they are likely to destroy any trust the victim has with law enforcement. This is damaging for victims, and decreases the chance of successfully investigating and prosecuting offenders.

Reid techniques were originally developed for the purpose of interrogating suspects, not interviewing victims. Considering the neurobiology of trauma and its effects on memory and recall, such techniques are likely to be very ineffective for interviewing victims. The same can be said about the polygraph and other strategies for detecting deception. The polygraph, for example, has long been seen as unreliable for use with people who are currently experiencing crisis. Even John Reid, the developer of the modern polygraph examination noted a variety of factors that influence the validity of the test results, such as “extreme emotional tension,” “overanxiety,” “anger,” and “physical discomfort,” among others. These factors are extremely likely with sexual assault victims.

Because technologies such as computerized voice stress analysis (CVSA) operate on similar principles, the same advisories apply. In fact, there is currently no technology available to truly “detect lies.” Rather, the polygraph and other techniques such as computerized voice stress analysis (CVSA) are designed to detect physiological reactions of stress, which may be associated with lying, or may be caused by a victim’s emotional reaction to the sexual assault (e.g., trauma, confusion, anxiety, shame).

Based on these concerns, polygraph results are inadmissible in most situations, and several states have enacted laws to prohibit law enforcement from offering or requiring a polygraph examination for sexual assault victims or from using the results of a polygraph examination to determine whether criminal charges will be filed. (This includes California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin). Other states have a law that limits the use of the polygraph with sexual assault victims to very specific circumstances (i.e., Kentucky), for example when there is a written Memorandum of Understanding among the involved parties (i.e., Pennsylvania). Others have a statute requiring that victims receive written notice that polygraphs are voluntary, that the results are inadmissible as evidence, and that their agreement to take the polygraph should not be the only condition for initiating or continuing an investigation (i.e., Virginia).

It is also worth noting that the Violence Against Women Act prohibits states, territories, and tribes from asking or requiring victims to submit to a polygraph examination or other truth telling device as a condition for proceeding with the investigation of a sexual assault. This provision applies to law enforcement officers, prosecuting officers, and other government officials. In addition, the victim’s refusal to submit to such an examination cannot prevent the investigation, charging, or prosecution of the offense. The prohibition applies to adult, youth, and child victims. If states, territories, or tribes cannot certify that their laws, policies, and practices comply with this provision, they will no longer be eligible to receive STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grants.

For more information on the polygraph, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) has published an excellent document entitled, “The Use of Truth Telling Devices in Sexual Assault Investigations.” They also provide a list of individual state legislation regarding polygraph use).

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