Bruce John: “Training Effective Investigative Child Interviewing Skills through Use of a Virtual Child”

April 25, 2013 | New York, NY

Speaker: Bruce John
Host: 5th International Simulation Symposia and Workshops

In abuse testimony, children are portrayed by the defense highly suggestible. As a result, child witnesses are often not believed. On the other hand, suggestive interviewing methods have been shown to undermine young childrens accuracy, invalidate testimony and lead to false convictions. The NICHD investigative interview protocol provides potential interviewers with an effective, standardized interview method to obtain accurate information from children. Unfortunately, the protocol is difficult to teach. Training programs reliably increase interviewer knowledge but often fail to affect interviewer behavior (1). The most effective approach is practice with feedback (2). However, simulated interviews suffer from adult simulatorҒs difficulties in accurately portraying child witnesses limitations (3). For ethical reasons, children are not utilized for mock child abuse interviews. 

The objective of this pilot study was to test a prototype of an interactive learning environment used to train and evaluate investigative child interviewing skills. VCW projects prototype tracks interviewer question-types during an interview with a virtual child. The creation of a virtual child provides a cost-effective and standardized process for teaching interviewing skills that emphasize open ended questioning. 

Forty-five subjects were recruited to participate in a preliminary study using a prototype of the Virtual Child Witness (VCW) program (n=45). The expert group had twenty-two participants who graduated an investigative interviewer training seminar. The novice group had twenty three interview novice-screened college graduates from the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. 

An independent-samples t-test indicated that the expert group, group 1 (M = .860, SD = .151), asked a significantly higher percentage of open ended questions compared to the novice group, group 2 (M = .477, SD = .284), t(24.748) = 5.150, p < .001, d = 1.68, with a 95% CI. Independent-samples t-tests also showed significant differences between the groups with regard to the other question types. 
The expert and novice interview groups had a number of similarities, including relative education level, computer usage, and finding the Virtual Child Witness (VCW) system easy to use and understandable. However, the two groups differed greatly in the types of questions they asked the virtual child during the interview. As expected, the expert group asked more open-ended questions during the interview, whereas the novice group asked more of other question types which were considered wrong. While this initial prototype is capable of distinguishing between different skill levels of interviewers, more development and testing is needed to assess its use as a pedagogical tool. Future work will also focus on simulated medical forensic interviews with physicians and natural language recognition interview capability.


  1. Powell, M. B. (2002). Specialist training in investigative and evidential interviewing: Is it having any effect on the behaviour of professionals in the field? Psychiatry, Psychology and the Law, 9(1), 4455. doi:10.1375/132187102760196763
  2. Lamb, M. E., Sternberg, K. J., Orbach, Y., Esplin, P. W., Mitchell, S. (2002). Is Ongoing Feedback Necessary to Maintain The Quality of Investigative Interviews With Allegedly Abused Children? Applied Developmental Science, 6(1). doi:10.1207/S1532480XADS0601_04
  3. Powell, M.B., Fisher, R.P., & Hughes-Scholes, C.H. (2008). The effect of using trained versus untrained adult respondents in simulated practice interviews about child abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect, 32, 1007-1016. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2008.05.005
  4. Wright, R., and Powell, M.B. (2005). Investigative interviewers֒ perceptions of their difficulty in adhering to open-ended questions with child witnesses. International Journal of Police Science & Management, 8(4), 316-325.