How to improve interpreter-mediated child interviews? Perceptions and experiences of forensic interviewers and interpreters

By Linnea Koponen

Linnea Koponen. Photo: Private

When children are suspected having experienced or witnessed crime, such as abuse or maltreatment, they are often being interviewed by a police employee in a child forensic interview. We know from decades of research that children as young as 3-year-old can provide reliable testimonies if interviewed in an encouraging and non-leading way (Lamb et al., 2018). The interviewer should mainly use open-ended prompts, such as “Tell me everything about what happened” and avoid questions that introduce new information or suggest a specific answer. It is also important to establish good contact between the interviewer and the child and create a safe environment where the child feels comfortable to disclose potentially traumatic or shameful experiences.

Conducting child forensic interviews is complicated, but it gets even more complicated when the child and the interviewer do not speak the same language, and a language interpreter is needed. We surveyed 41 Swedish forensic interviewers’ experiences of conducting interpreter-mediated child interviews. The participants described many problems and concerns related to the quality of these interviews, including doubts about the accuracy of the interpretation and difficulties in establishing good contact with the child. Some participants expressed feeling a loss of control in how the questions are being asked, as the interpreter might interpret open-ended questions to alternative-posing or suggestive ones. Others mentioned that it is difficult to elicit trust from a child who might not understand the role and function of an interpreter. The interviewers also wished for more education and training for interpreters in child interviewing.

Problems related to interpreter-mediated child interviews can have tremendous consequences for both the child and the continued criminal investigation. For example, in addition to increased risk for suggestive questioning, inaccurate interpreting and misunderstandings might force the interviewer to repeat questions several times, which might cause the child to change their answer. Consequently, the court might assess the child’s testimony as less reliable and having lower evidential value, which decreases the chances of conviction of the case. The child interviewee might also find it exhausting and annoying when needing to answer to same questions repeatedly and not being understood.

How could interpreter-mediated child forensic interviews be improved? In another study, we investigated the other side of the coin and surveyed 130 interpreters’ views and experiences of interpreting child forensic interviews. According to interpreters’ responses, all interview parties would benefit from better communication between the interviewer and the interpreter. The interpreter should be provided relevant information about the child and the interview beforehand, and the interviewer and the interpreter should agree on how to work together and solve problems, such as misunderstandings. The participants of the study also mentioned issues related to telephone interpreting, suggesting that the interpreter should preferably interpret child interviews on-site when possible. Finally, the interpreters, too, wished for more education and training, both for interpreters in child forensic interviews and for interviewers in how to conduct interviews via an interpreter.

Every child has the right to express themselves in legal matters that affect their lives. However, considering the problems and challenges related to interpreter-mediated child forensic interviews, children who do not speak the majority language of a country might not be able to effectively express themselves and provide their testimony. Thus, more effort should be put into improving the quality of these interviews to ensure that all children, regardless of their ethnicity or language, are being treated fairly by the legal system.

Linnea Koponen is a a master’s student in psychology at the University of Gothenburg with a special interest in child forensic interviewing. My ambition is to improve the way child victims and witnesses are being treated by the legal system.