Preparing Child Forensic Interviewers for Court

As part of the investigative response to child abuse, a Children’s Advocacy Center provides a forensic interview with a trained professional who knows how to talk to children about abuse in a non-leading manner. That interview is video-recorded and may be reviewed by multiple team members as many times as needed as the case progresses. Often, the child’s recorded statement is evidence enough to bring charges without the need for a trial. This means a child victim is spared the additional trauma of a court experience.

But some cases do involve a trial, and that means the forensic interviewer and prosecutor who work together on the multidisciplinary team must be ready to defend the CAC process and the child’s statement. Earlier this month, PennCAC hosted a three-day intensive training for nine teams of forensic interviewers and prosecutors from across Pennsylvania. Licensed by Zero Abuse Project as the first State Chapter of Children’s Advocacy Centers to offer the Forensic Interviewer at Trial (FIT) curriculum, PennCAC has assembled an impressive training team that includes advanced forensic interviewers and seasoned attorneys with experience prosecuting child abuse cases.

Teams from Warren County Children’s Advocacy Center, Family Support Line, York County Children’s Advocacy Center, Mission Kids, The Children’s House, Child Advocacy Center of the Central Susquehanna Valley at Geisinger, Children’s Advocacy Center of McKean County, Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, and Child Advocacy Center of Clearfield County spent three days hearing from experts, discussing case scenarios, and practicing via role-play.

A trainer with the new FIT program in Pennsylvania, Rebecca Voss is the executive director at Over The Rainbow CAC, where she also provides forensic interviews. According to Voss, testifying in court can feel overwhelming to newer interviewers who may not know “how to respond to different questions, how to talk about what you do as an interviewer, or how to defend what you did in an interview.”  

FIT provides subject matter training—for example, how a child’s memory operates when recalling and relating past events—as well as practical tips on maintaining composure and responding to defense experts who attempt to discredit a forensic interview conducted at a CAC.

A unique feature of the FIT course is role-play, which puts participants in mock courtroom scenarios to practice what it’s like to testify. At this training, PennCAC’s Technical Assistance Manager, Dave Rush, volunteered to serve as the “judge” hearing a mock case. Voss says the hands-on FIT training compliments PennCAC’s other professional support for forensic interviewers, giving them the opportunity “to interact with their peers and learn how to talk about what their role is and what they do in the forensic interview room.”

In a mock trial at the Nov. 9 FIT training, forensic interviewer Joanne Babcock (The Children’s House CAC) takes the witness stand to practice responding to a defense attorney’s line of questioning. Dave Rush, PennCAC’s Technical Assistance Manager, role-plays as judge.

“The idea is that our forensic interviewers who participate in FIT will be much more prepared and confident when they go to court,” says PennCAC Executive Director Chris Kirchner. “It’s really about leveling the playing field for kids whose disclosure of abuse may come under attack by seasoned defense attorneys.” Earlier this year PennCAC hosted the FIT training virtually and looks forward to offering it twice annually.

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