Professor Receives Grant to Assess Impact of Child Eyewitness Interview Techniques

NSF-funded project designed to advance field of forensic interviewing

Remote interviewing could solve the challenges facing many jurisdictions, especially those in out-of-the-way locations that lack the resources and expertise to skillfully conduct sensitive interviews of child eyewitnesses. Jason Dickinson, professor of psychology and director of the Robert D. McCormick Center for Child Advocacy and Policy at Montclair State received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to assess the impact of face-to-face and remote interviewing of child eyewitnesses. He shares the three-year, $311,753 award with Debra Poole of Central Michigan University.

The project is one of the first to explore whether interviewing child witnesses remotely by computer presents an effective alternative to in-person, or face-to-face, interviews. “When questioned properly, children can make remarkable witnesses. However, they can be very suggestible. When you don’t know what a child has experienced, interviewers have to balance the risks of pressing too hard with not pressing hard enough,” says Dickinson.

College of Humanities and Social Sciences Dean Robert Friedman says, “Project findings will guide policy and contribute practical solutions to jurisdictions that do not have sufficient access to forensic experts.”

Montclair State is the lead university on the collaborative project, with Dickinson serving as a co-principal investigator with Poole. As senior personnel on the grant, Assistant Professor Nicole Lytle of the Center for Child Advocacy and Policy will also play a large role in the study.  

“This is my fourth NSF grant with Debra Poole,” notes Dickinson. “All of our previous NSF studies have looked at the use of interviewing aids to facilitate children’s testimony. Our new study is in a similar vein – studying whether remote technology, an emerging interviewing aid, impacts the accuracy of children’s reports. It’s a mistake to assume that what works for adults also works with children. That’s why we test these procedures in the lab.”

According to Dickinson, jurisdictions often lack the necessary expertise to investigate crimes involving child witnesses. “Remote interviewing could reduce investigative response time, spare investigative resources and accelerate case disposition – and greatly aid investigators in their efforts to reach children in secluded locations,” he predicts. “However, the ability of remote interviewing to elicit eyewitness evidence from children has not been sufficiently tested.”

Making Better Legal Decisions Involving Children

During the project’s first two years, it will test 290 children aged 4 to 8, with Dickinson’s Montclair State lab testing 215 of them. During lab visits, children will participate in a series of science demonstrations, some of which involve surprising and unexpected events, where something will go wrong. After two weeks, parents will read their children a short story about their visit that contains both true and false information. According to Dickinson, the children will then return to the lab, where they will be asked about their initial visit either face-to-face or by computer. The grant’s third year will be devoted to data analysis and dissemination of findings.

“This paradigm, which is enjoyable and educational for children, will allow us to identify the costs and benefits of using one procedure over the other,” he explains. “We will compare both procedures to identify differences in their ability to elicit true information and minimize misinformation. The ultimate goal is to help the legal system make better decisions where children are involved.”

The University’s Center for Child Advocacy and Policy is home to the nation’s largest academic child advocacy program, which prepares graduate and undergraduate students for careers in child advocacy. In addition to advancing the field of forensic interviewing, the project will help to train dozens of students, who will be helping to collect data in the University’s new Center for Clinical Services building. “Projects like these are how we train the next generation of scientists,” says Dickinson.  

“Through this grant, the Center for Child Advocacy and Policy is leveraging the endorsement and resources of the NSF to improve the lives of children who have witnessed crime or have been its victim,” Friedman notes. “What could be more important?”