Virtual Child Witness

Project Leaders: Albert "Skip" Rizzo and Thomas "Brett" Talbot

The primary objective of this research project is to establish the feasibility and efficacy of using an interactive learning environment to train and evaluate investigative child interviewing skills. In the courts, children are portrayed by defense attorneys and expert witnesses as being highly suggestible. As a result, child witnesses are often not believed. On the other hand, suggestive interviewing methods have been shown to undermine young children’s accuracy, and can lead to false convictions.

The NICHD investigative interview protocol provides 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 (Powell, 2002). The most effective approach is practice with feedback (Lamb, Sternberg, Orbach, Esplin, & Mitchell, 2002). However, simulated interviews suffer from adult simulator’s difficulties in accurately portraying child witnesses’ limitations (Powell, Fisher, & Hughes-Scholes, 2008). For practical and ethical reasons, children cannot be utilized for mock interviews about child abuse.

The Virtual Child Witness project models the rapport building phase of an investigative interview, in which the interviewer asks the child questions about innocuous events. Users select from a menu of questions that vary in their open-endedness and therefore in their productivity in eliciting narrative reports.

Initially, the project was intended to demonstrate the varying effectiveness of different question types at inducing detailed accounts of information regarding an innocuous event experienced by the virtual child; what is known as the narrative practice rapport phase of an investigative interview. Pilot data has supported the program’s efficacy in assessing the user’s interviewing skills, and in serving as an engaging device for training. Further refinements will lead to a program that can be used, by the multitude of different agencies tasked with investigative interviewing, to train all necessary components of what make up an effective investigative interview, components adapted from the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD) investigative interview protocol (Lamb et al., 2008).

The creation of a virtual child can provide a cost-effective and standardized process for teaching good interviewing skills. It can be disseminated through the web, providing a distance learning alternative to in-person training.