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September/October 2001Vol. 2, No. 5Interviewing Immigrant Children About Maltreatment

Professionals who interview children about child abuse and neglect serve children from myriad cultures. A new resource aims to help professionals develop their cultural competency.

A new audiotape, which is part of Sage Publications' Trauma Therapy Series, helps professionals conduct interviews with children of different cultural groups. Dr. Lisa Aronson Fontes offers suggestions based on her own clinical experience and research on cultural issues in sexual abuse in both Latin America and the United States. In her discussion, Fontes directs her comments at professionals that work with Native Americans, children who are immigrants themselves, and children and grandchildren of immigrants.

The tape is designed for training professionals in a variety of contexts, such as:

  • Criminal and child protection investigations
  • Custody hearings
  • Medical forensic settings
  • Psychotherapy.

As a first step, interviewers should gather information about the child's culture to determine how much the child has assimilated from the dominate American culture and how much is retained from the culture of origin. She defines culture as a set of beliefs, attitudes, and practices shared by a group of people. "Culture is complex and multi-faceted. People who seem to be from the same culture may differ widely," notes Fontes.

She explains that police stations and schools, where interviews often take place, may be threatening to immigrant children who may have negative associations with law enforcement officials or educators. She asks professionals to consider other more neutral environments, such as Community Advocacy Centers, hospitals, mental health centers, or Head Start centers. The location should also be child friendly and inviting to people of different cultures by having paperwork available in different languages, employing a multicultural staff, and displaying diverse artwork and magazines.

Fontes warns that the presence of a parent or a child's ingrained custom to defend his family may inhibit the child's testimony. It is important to enlist the non-offending parent, other relatives, or community members to persuade the child to tell the truth. She also discusses the difficulty professionals may face in gathering basic demographic information as immigrant families often do not fit the traditional nuclear household model.

In discussing language issues, Fontes advocates for the use of a bilingual interviewer who can follow the child's lead in switching languages, understands cultural issues and nuances, and can more effectively communicate with accompanying adults. She offers guidelines for using interpreters and warns that informal, untrained interpreters could be detrimental to obtaining accurate testimony. Suggestions for assessing non-verbal communication, arranging seating, pace-setting, and using interview aids are also included.

Fontes takes listeners through the following four stages of the interview process with immigrant children:

  • Rapport building
  • Assessment
  • Information gathering
  • Closure.

Although she does not delve into general interviewing techniques, she encourages interviewers to ask short, open-ended questions that will encourage a child to speak in his own words. Fontes also advises professionals to be aware of their own biases for or against a specific group, as well as a child's prejudices toward the interviewer. "A good match between an interviewer and a child does not depend on their being from the same cultural group... Interviewers and children from different groups can work well together if they speak the same language, if the interviewer understands the child's culture, and if the interviewer demonstrates competence, caring, and trust."

To purchase a copy of the audiotape, Interviewing Immigrant Children and Families About Child Maltreatment, contact:

Sage Publications
2455 Teller Rd.
Thousand Oaks, CA 91320-2218
Phone: 805-499-9774
Fax: 805-499-0871