Facilitating Forensic Child Interviews via Use of Laptop Computers
By Ron S ilikovitz, Ph.D.
In my forensic and clinical work with difficult children, I have come across a technique that may be of interest to families and to other practitioners.
I have discovered, literally by accident, that the computer can be a valuable medium to facilitate dialogue with children who would otherwise be reticent.
Specifically, I have had "computer conversations" with children about content so difficult and sensitive that these children were unable to communicate verbally but were remarkably able to present
information by taking turns with me in typing remarks on the computer. I would type the question, and the child would type a response, and then I would ask a follow-up question, the child would then respond, and so
Here are three vignettes. I have changed the names to preserve confidentiality.
Nicole's mother had alleged that an adult male friend of Nicole's father had sexually abused her on several occasions, with the knowledge and consent of the father.
The court asked me to assess the extent to which eleven-year-old Nicole would be at risk for further abuse when she visited her father.
Although Nicole had been in therapy with me for almost two years, she was reluctant and embarrassed to discuss with me these specific allegations.
She was, however, more than willing to engage in a question-and answer dialogue on my office computer.
With Nicole's permission, an unedited transcript of this discussion was included in my report to the court. The judge later indicated that it was helpful for him to have that transcript.
Lillian, age nine, was referred by her father's attorney for extensive assessment in her personal injury litigation.
A year prior to this referral, Lillian had reportedly been brutally assaulted physically and sexually on her way home from the laundromat and had been left for dead. Lillian managed to get back to her apartment
and get treatment in the hospital.
Lillian had never given a full coherent account of this incident to her parents, to the police, or to her attorney. During months of therapy before her scheduled deposition, she had provided me with isolated
details regarding the incident. We were communicating verbally.
One day, quite by accident, Lillian engaged in a "computer conversation" with me. Avoiding leading questions, I was able to facilitate her providing, for the very first time, a comprehensive and
coherent account of the incident, as she recalled it, as well as her feelings about the assault.
This conversation helped prepare her to handle herself well at her deposition. In addition, the unedited transcript of our conversation helped to facilitate a settlement of her personal injury claim.
George is a seven-year-old selectively mute child who had been referred to me for individual therapy.
Not only was George was not participating in any educational activities in his classroom, but he would not even set foot inside his classroom.
Working closely with George's mother and his Child Study Team, I suggested that the school provide a private aide for George.
A program was established that soon resulted in George's sitting in his classroom and listening in on classroom activities.
During therapy sessions, George willingly engaged in computer interviews with me on a consistent basis.
George was soon able to engage in consistent eye contact with me, and he was able to whisper to his mother verbal responses to some of my questions.
In my view, were it not for the computer interviews, the slow but steady emotional and behavioral progress that took place in the school setting would not have been possible.
One immediate challenge for practitioners is to become more computer literate and more aware of creative uses of the computer, in order to be of optimal forensic and clinical assistance to difficult children like
Nicole, Lillian and George.
(This article is also published on Psychology Infromation Online.)