by Victor I. Vieth
American Prosecutors Research Institute
Update - Volume 11, Number 2, 1998
Professionals who deal with child abusers are increasingly aware that this breed of criminal is more difficult to deal with than most. This is particularly true when the offender sexually preys on children. Sex offenders "cannot deal openly and honestly with who they are or what they have done. This is not surprising: With something to hide, they have become practiced at hiding it , often (in part) from themselves as well as from others."2
The need to hide makes child abusers extraordinary manipulators. According to one observer, "child molesters particularly try to manipulate their wives or the guardians and parents of their victims, their probation officers, and the court…a child molester can sometimes outwit even the greatest efforts of those involved."3 The manipulative skill of child abusers enables many to abuse numerous children with little chance of getting caught. In a study of 561 sex offenders, these offenders accounted for the abuse of an astonishing 195,407 victims.4
Investigators report that unless caught in the act or confronted with overwhelming evidence, a child abuse suspect can be expected to deny the allegation.5 Breaking down the wall of denial is not easy and some law enforcement protocols provide that officers must receive training in the art of obtaining a confession from a child molester before they will be assigned such a task.6 As one investigator notes, "(s)imply asking an alleged perpetrator if he molested a child does not constitute a proper interview. Any criminal investigator needs effective interviewing skills."7
An investigator preparing to interview a suspected child molester may wish to consider the following ten tips:
1. Never give up. A child molester is unlikely to confess quickly to a crime. Accordingly, an officer should assume a lengthy interrogation is necessary and not stop the interview simply because the suspect is in denial. As long as the suspect is willing to talk and has not invoked his right to counsel or to remain silent, the interrogation should continue. Once the suspect is charged and counsel is appointed, it is a safe bet he will no longer cooperate with the investigation.
Many investigators prefer to interview a suspect alone in order to develop rapport. Even a skilled interviewer, though, can benefit from the input of others during the interview. If possible, place the suspect in a room where the interview can be watched by other investigators via closed circuit television or other mechanisms. When the primary interviewer takes a break, she can consult with the investigators watching the interview. When it comes to breaking down a child abuser’s wall of denial, two heads are better than one.
2. Confront each denial. An investigator should not allow a suspect’s denial of the charge go unanswered. Although an investigator should not be belligerent or adopt a posture which will end the suspect’s cooperation, the implausibility of the suspect’s denial should not go unchecked.8
If a suspect says the child is mistaken and may be referring to being bathed or to some other innocent touch, the officer should respond by saying something to the effect "no, I was there when your daughter described your conduct and she clearly referred to an act of molestation."
If a suspect maintains that children fantasize or invent tales of abuse, an interviewer can say "I’ve been an investigator for many years and I’ve never known a child to invent a claim of abuse."
If a suspect suggests the officer planted the idea in the child’s head, the officer can point to the precautions she took to avoid misleading the child. If the officer is properly trained in child development and linguistics, she can tell the suspect "I’ve received specific training in speaking to a child to avoid any possibility of compelling an unreliable answer."
Many denials can be confronted with evidence. Indeed, some law enforcement protocols suggest the suspect should be interviewed only when all other evidence has been collected.9 While this may not always be possible,10 there should be some evidence with which to confront the accused. Ideally, a perpetrator can be confronted with medical evidence. Unfortunately, most cases of sexual abuse do not involve medical evidence.11 There may, however, be other pieces of evidence such as a sexually explicit drawing made by a child or the audio or videotaped interview of the child.
3. Emphasize the child’s love for the perpetrator. If the abuse is within the family unit and the perpetrator contends the child is lying, remind him of the child’s affection for the perpetrator. For instance, an officer can say to a suspect: "It’s clear to me that your daughter loves you and it is painful for her to speak of these things. Given her love for you and the discomfort of these memories, it is simply implausible to conclude she is lying."
4. Emphasize the perpetrator’s love for the child. Even abusive parents may love their children. If the perpetrator does at some level care for the child, the interviewer can point to the child’s pain and ask the caretaker to alleviate it. As an example, the interviewer could take the following approach:
"I’ve been a police officer for a long time and I know what it’s like for children to have to testify about these things. Kids don’t fit well in witness boxes. Their feet don’t touch the floor and they can barely see over the wooden frame of the witness box. In front of her father and 12 strangers we then make the child speak of sexual matters we would feel uncomfortable talking about. Then we turn her over to a defense attorney to be ridiculed. Don’t do that to your daughter. You love her too much. Let me go home tonight and tell her that Dad owned up to what he did and is going to get help. Don’t make me go to her and tell her Dad says she’s a liar. She needs to heal as well."
5. Explore the possibility the suspect was abused as a child. Although most child abuse victims do not grow up to be child abusers, many child abusers were victimized in their youth.12 It is logical, therefore, to explore the suspect’s childhood. If the suspect acknowledges abuse as a child, ask him for details as to who abused him and how. It may be that his pattern of victimization parallels the type of abuse he has inflicted as an adult.
Ask the suspect if, as a child, he ever told anyone about the abuse. Chances are, he spoke of the abuse to a mother or other relative but was not believed. If so, ask the suspect how it feels to be abused and yet not believed. Then ask the suspect how his victims will feel if not believed.
6. Offer support for the perpetrator. Offer encouragement for the perpetrator as a means of weakening the obstacles preventing him from disclosing his conduct. If he has disclosed being victimized as a child, tell the perpetrator you can understand why he repeated this behavior. Tell the suspect he is not like other suspects who blanket themselves in denial and refuse to get help. Tell the perpetrator you know he didn’t want to do this and that it’s obvious to you he is himself in pain. Urge him to ease his pain and get the help he needs. I know investigators who have successfully referred to an imaginary mirror, telling the suspect "I wish I had a mirror right now. If you could only see your face, you would know how much you are hurting. Let’s put this behind you. Let go of your pain."
7. Corroborate the victim’s version. An interviewer should elicit as much information as possible from the suspect which will corroborate peripheral details of the event. This enables the prosecutor to argue that if the child is accurate as to mundane events, she is likely credible when relating the traumatic encounter of abuse. The following example illustrates this point.
A child abuse victim once related to a police officer that mom’s live-in boyfriend abused her on a particular evening. She recalled she was sleeping in the basement and that her dog was scratching on a basement window to get in. She recalled the perpetrator brought the dog into the basement and then molested her.
Although the suspect was adamant in denying any sexual contact, he confirmed that the dog was scratching to get inside and he brought the dog to the girl. This information enabled the prosecutor to argue the victim was credible. Even the defendant conceded the victim told the truth as to where she was sleeping, the incident with the dog, and that the suspect entered the child’s sleeping quarters. The suspect even admitted he believed the child was abused, he simply didn’t do it.
8. Give the suspect an out. If all other approaches fail to obtain incriminating statements, give the suspect an out whereby he can save some face. Child molesters are adept at blaming others for their conduct. A child molester may blame the victim, the victim’s mother, or the alcohol or drugs he consumed.13 An interviewer can help this process along by saying something like "alcohol is a terrible thing. It makes us do things we would not do sober. Is it possible that’s what happened here?"14 According to one interviewer, "(i)f the offender is allowed to rationalize or project some of the blame for his behavior onto someone or something else, he is more likely to confess."15
9. Consider using a polygraph examination. Although the examination may be inadmissible, a perpetrator may make incriminating statements when confronted with a failed examination. Some commentators state the polygraph must be done immediately in conjunction with the initial interview.16 While this is the ideal, it may not be an option in small, rural police departments which do not have a polygraph examiner on call. Despite this limitation, a number of rural investigators have successfully used polygraph examinations to obtain incriminating statements from suspects.17 This is true even when the investigator was forced to delay the polygraph examination for one or more days. Obviously, this is not an option in cases where circumstances necessitate an immediate arrest.
10. Consider having the victim make a controlled and recorded telephone call to the perpetrator to discuss the assault. Although the victim must be old enough, adequately briefed, and sufficiently sophisticated to be convincing in the conversation, this method has produced incriminating evidence in a number of cases.18 Consult with the child’s therapist or other professional to be sure the victim is emotionally able to confront the offender.
Few, if any, crimes are as egregious as the offense of child abuse. In fulfilling the obligation to protect the innocent and uphold the law, law enforcement officers and prosecutors must ensure that child abuse suspects are interviewed in a manner that maximizes the potential for uncovering the truth. The child victim is counting on us.
1 Senior Attorney, APRI’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse.
2 Michael A. O’Connell, Eric Leberg, and Craig R. Donaldson, Working with Sex Offenders 14 (1990).
3 Eric Leberg, Understanding Child Molesters 91 (1997).
4 Gene G. Abel, Judith V. Becker, Mary Mittelman, Jerry Cunningham-Rathner, Joanne L. Rouleau, and William D. Murphy, Self Reported Sex Crimes of Nonincarcerated Paraphiliacs, 2 Journal of Interpersonal Violence 3, 17-19 (1987).
5 Donna Pence and Charles Wilson, Team Investigation of Child Sexual Abuse 116 (1994).
6 See Cottonwood County Protocol for the Investigation and Assessment of Child Abuse Cases (Revised March 1997) at 2 (a copy of this protocol is on file with APRI’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse).
7 Kenneth V. Lanning, Criminal Investigation of Sexual Victimization of Children in The Apsac Handbook on Child Maltreatment 261 (1996).
8 Anna C. Salter, Treating Child Sex Offenders and Victims 94 (1988).
9 Pence and Wilson, supra note 5 at 110-111.
10 For instance, the perpetrator may be residing with the child and thus safety concerns for the victim compel a prompt arrest and interview of the perpetrator.
11 Investigation and Prosecution of Child Abuse (2d Ed) (apri’s national center for prosecution of child abuse, Alexandria, Va) at 115.
12 Richard Cohen, Megan’s Law and Jesse’s Life, Washington Post, Tuesday, June 3, 1997 at A19. See also Salter, supra note 8, at 48.
13 Leberg, supra note 3, at 81-90. For an excellent overview of the distorted thinking of incest offenders, see Carolyn Copps Hartley, How Incest Offenders Overcome Internal Inhibitions Through the Use of Cognitions and Cognitive Distortions, 13 Journal of Interpersonal Violence 25 (1998).
14 There is, indeed, a correlation between alcohol use and the sexual abuse of children. However, it is inaccurate to say that alcohol use causes sexual abuse. Leberg, supra note 3, at 88-89.
15 Lanning, supra note 7 at 261-262.
16 Pence and Wilson, supra note 5, at 119-120.
17 In the nine years I worked as a rural prosecutor, our investigators used polygraph examinations on several occasions to obtain incriminating statements from child abuse suspects.
18 See Justin Gillis, Nobel Laureate is Sent to Jail, Tape Helped to Decide Fate in Sex Abuse Case, The Washington Post, April 30, 1997 at A1.