Questioning Friends & Siblings About Suspicions
If you want to question a child’s friends and siblings during your investigation, first consider their parents’ potential objections. Parents can overreact to news that you’ve discussed a concern with their child. If you don’t contact the parents first, they may only learn of your questions through their child. They can easily feel blindsided by a troublesome situation to which they were oblivious. There’s little to lose by first obtaining the parents’ permission to talk to their child.
Many parents want to be there when an adult speaks with their child. If you suspect their presence is inhibiting, you can ask the young person whether talking in front of the parents is difficult. A young child might admit to being uncomfortable or embarrassed. He might also fear punishment. If you allow the child to express his feelings, some parents will cooperate by giving you and the youngster a bit of privacy.
If a child you question reveals information on which an adult or law enforcement authority is compelled to act, it becomes your responsibility to ensure the proper notification is made. The objectives of your own investigation cannot override your obligation to protect the child you’ve questioned. For example, suppose you ask a neighbour’s child about your own child’s use of the neighbour’s computer. If she reveals her family’s computer has been used to post nude photographs of her young friends on the Web, you’re then obligated to report her allegation to law enforcement authorities. It’s entirely possible the photographs were taken and posted by the children without the parents’ knowledge, but that’s for the authorities to determine.
Certainly most children are more candid than adults. A child is also more prone to repeat a rumour with utter conviction that it’s the truth. It can be very difficult to distinguish what children know and have seen from what they merely were told by someone else. You can easily find yourself reporting alleged criminal activity to police, only to learn the crime was imaginary. However, you cannot risk overlooking a dangerous situation by forming the wrong conclusion about a child’s veracity.
Perhaps now you can imagine what a minefield you enter when you attempt to gather information from a child’s friends and siblings. Ideally, parents should be acquainted with all of their children’s associates and fully aware of their unsupervised activities. Yet even the best parent is occasionally surprised to learn her child has taken an unacceptable risk.
Techniques for Questioning ChildrenThe best approach to questioning a child is a neutral one. Don’t spell out your concerns or make accusations. Instead, prompt a discussion with a vague comment or question such as, “Can you tell me what happened?” or “What does Samantha do after school?” Let the child proceed at his own pace. If his explanation veers too far off course, gently guide it back by requesting more specific details about a previous answer. However, the more you talk, the less effectively you’ll be able to listen to what the child is telling you.
Don’t force a child to use your language. If you’re a bit unsure how to interpret any slang, simply say, “I don’t understand. What do you mean by that?” Be patient. She may find it difficult to explain. If questions linger, it’s easy enough to ask the youngster whether you adequately interpreted what she said. Repeat the child’s comments, using your own words, and ask her whether you correctly understood. Beware of using this tactic in the wrong circumstances! If your discussion with the child concerns a criminal offence, you should not try to elicit the child’s statement yourself. Rephrasing a child’s comments can be construed as an inappropriate influence on the child’s memory of events. It can cast doubt on the reliability of the young person’s statement, which may be the only evidence available to police investigators. Always leave criminal investigations to the experts.
Avoid blaming the parent for the child’s actions. This advice is particularly important when the parent is you. There are many factors other than parenting that contribute to a child’s behaviour. A young person’s peers have an enormous influence. Genetics also play a part.
It goes without saying that a child will perceive your questioning of his friends and siblings as a violation of his privacy. Anger is a normal reaction and can only be countered with your love and compassion. If you establish a foundation for good communication early in your child’s life, then there will be many fewer surprises en route to adulthood.