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Spotlight: Jessica Espinosa, Forensic Interview Supervisor

One of the benefits of Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center’s collaborative approach to sexual abuse reports is that abused children only have to tell their story once, minimizing the trauma of retelling their story over and over. As ChicagoCAC’s Forensic Interview Supervisor, Jessica Espinosa makes sure these interviews go smoothly and safely.

I’ve been working at CACs for almost six years, and I’ve been a forensic interviewer since 2016. I train and supervise the 7 forensic interviewers working here at ChicagoCAC, as well as doing forensic interviews myself. I also assign cases – that mean reading through each case every day basically and making sure that I’m putting the right interviewer on the right case, making sure that newer interviewers aren’t on too intense cases, and responding in emergency cases. I’m also working on a manual right now for forensic interviewing.

A forensic interviewer is a neutral party in the investigation of some kind of allegation-— sexual, physical, witness to crime, domestic violence, etc. We’re there to solicit information from the child about the allegation in a child-friendly and effective way. We usually interview children between the ages of 2 and 17, though sometimes we also interview adults with cognitive/intellectual delays.
As soon as the child comes in, they meet with one of our family advocates and the advocate shows them the pod – the interviewing room. The advocate explains that the forensic interview is someone who is neutral and not there to work for the detective or Department of Child and Family Services, but just to obtain information in a child-friendly way.

Once the child is settled in our Child Life Room, the interviewer goes into the family room and introduces themselves to the parents. Meanwhile, the Child Life Specialist plays with the child and shows them a picture of the interviewer to prepare them. The interviewer then goes and introduces themselves to the child and takes them into the interview room.

We introduce ourselves in order to help the child understand what’s going on. I might say something like, “My name’s Jessica, my job is to talk and listen to kids, I do this all the time every day, you’re not in trouble for anything you tell me today, I’m not going to think differently of you for anything you tell me, and anything you tell me I won’t get embarrassed, shy, anything like that. Now, I don’t know you, so tell me about yourself.”

The kid is usually shy or scared, but as soon as we start to gather information about what they like to do for fun, what their hobby or sport is, the child will often start to open up. We’ll often ask them to talk about something they do ‘from beginning to end’, like the process of baking cupcakes’. This is what we call ‘building rapport’, and there’s a couple reasons why we start with this.

One is, we want to see where the child is developmentally and how they answer those questions. Two, we also want just to get them in a neutral state, a little less anxious, less stressed. Getting them to talk about something they like to do is more relaxing. This lets us anticipate how the interview will go moving forward, but also prepares the child for how they need to talk during the rest of the interview.

Parents who talk to them at home usually ask very specific questions like “did you have a good day at school” and then that’s it. What we as interviewers want is the full, comprehensive detail of the situation. A sample dialogue might go something like this:

“Tell me about baking cupcakes, when’s the last time you baked cupcakes?”

“Oh, yesterday.”

“Okay, tell me everything you did from the moment you woke up until you went to bed yesterday when you made cupcakes.”

“I woke up and then I went to school.”

“Okay what’s the very first thing you did when you woke up?”

The kids might feel strange, because that’s not usually the way they talk, but we’re teaching them how to engage with us when the allegation itself comes up, so we know exactly what happened. It goes step by step, because every question has a purpose for the investigation. “Were there witnesses?”, “who was the first person who was told?”, and so on. When we start talking about the allegation, the discussion might go like this:

“What’s the very first thing that happened?”

“He walked in my room.”

“What’s the next thing that happened?”

“He opened my blanket.”

“What’s the very next thing that happened?”

“He touched me?”

“What did he touch you with?”

“Duh, his hands.”

“What did his hands do when he touched your private parts?”

For the sake of the investigation, we want to know everything that happened step by step. The detectives investigating the allegation want to know things like whether the offender went through a locked door when they came in. So if I’m saying how did your uncle get in your room and they say “Well, my door was locked and he picked it open”, that’s a sort of charge that can be brought against the perpetrator.

The main purpose of the CAC was for the children to only have to come and tell their story one time to people who are not detectives, and so might have leading or suggestive questions. Forensic interviewers are trained to start with open-ended questions and work our way down to more specific questions, because that’s a very effective way for the children to tell us their narrative, rather than us shooting out question after question that the child might only answer yes or no to.

A couple months ago, I was interviewing a 10 year old who was very nervous to come in. She even had a teddy bear with her. She was happy during the building rapport stage, very talkative. I went over the rules and told her not to guess if she didn’t know an answer, and that it’s okay to say you just don’t know or can’t understand a question. We also elicit a promise as part of the procedure – we go over what truth and lie means, we practice truths and lies, then I ask the child why they’re there.

The child sort of shut down after I asked that question and got very quiet. My first instinct said that she just wasn’t ready to talk and might not disclose anything, but I took my time and let her have her space. She didn’t want to talk about the act at first, so I used this technique where we talk about everything else besides the specific allegation. She would say “Well, something happened to me”, and then she’d shut down when I asked her about it, almost looking like she was in pain. She said her stomach hurt.

It was a very long interview, longer than usual, but we were eventually able to get a disclosure against her uncle. It required someone with a lot of patience to give her that space – I was quiet with her when she wanted to be quiet and willing to back up if I needed to ask a question in a different way. She did cry a little bit, and I think those are the toughest for me. When it’s just a little bit of crying, it melts my heart, because they’re trying so hard not to cry.

The conclusion portion of the interview is intended to try and return the child to a natural state. We tell them, “I know I’ve asked you so many questions today, do you have any questions for me?” They’ll ask things like what’s going to happen to them after they leave that day, or why we have a two- way mirror, or sometimes they don’t have questions at all.

I’ll bring the conversation back to something like their hobbies or interests, or ask them questions about a comic they’re interested in. If they didn’t give me a hobby, I can ask if they’re doing anything fun this weekend, just to get them to talk a little bit more until I see them get a little bit more calm. Then I thank them for talking to me today and they say thank you. And then they leave.

It’s hard, but I love this work and I love being at ChicagoCAC.

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