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Retired Metropolitan Police Detective and Sanctuary Training tutor, Robin Watts, who spent his last 10 years in service leading child protection investigations, discusses Achieving Best Evidence (ABE).

Most social workers will be aware of ABE; the forensic interviewing of children, intimidated, vulnerable and disabled adults for criminal investigations and the court process. But there are still some misconceptions over the exact role of the social worker within the interview process. 

Let me try and dismiss some myths. A lot of people think that an ABE interview is a police officer-led interview. This is not necessarily the case. The criminal investigation is, of course, police led and this is endorsed by recommendation 99 of the Laming Report into the death of Victoria Climbié. In the manual, this is explained in paragraph 2.22. However, the same paragraph states that, this being the case, does not mean that the police should take the lead in the interview, and explains that provided both have been trained in accordance to this manual, there is no reason why either the police officer or the social worker cannot take the lead. My view is that, where possible, the child chooses who takes the lead; whether this is by a direct request, or how and who the child responds to the best on the initial meeting(s). Of course, other factors can have a bearing too.

Taking the lead in the interview

From my experience of working in this field for around 20 years now, I know there are some excellent police interviewers of children. However, there are some equally skilled social worker interviewers as well. Despite this, the social worker very rarely takes the lead in this type of interview. Most will deflect to the police and not put themselves forward to interview the child about the crime they have suffered or witnessed. As safeguarding professionals, we are there for the child and aiming to give them the best possible service we can. We need to be able to objectively decide who is the best lead interviewer for the child and then plan the interview around them (and not us). Fail to plan, plan to fail How much priority is given to planning the interview is another concern of mine. Chapter 2 of the guidance report is around the planning of the ABE interview.

It is quite an extensive chapter, and the phrase “fail to plan, plan to fail”, comes to mind here. How many interviews are conducted without a proper strategy meeting? How many times do we arrange the interview time and place based on our needs rather than the child’s? Do we consider their individual needs? Areas around culture, religion, medical needs, timings, age, gender, and more besides. Are they considered? If not, are we really Achieving Best Evidence?

The interview itself is vital to the investigation, and subsequent conviction, of child abusers. A poorly planned and conducted interview can have devastating effects on the victim. We all know convictions for child abuse are low, and a poor interview can contribute to this. 

The importance of open questions

I would ask you to think for a moment about how you question children and carers. Does this type of question sound familiar? “Can you tell me about that?”, “Can you remember?”, “Can you tell me a little about...” These are the type of closed questions that can lead to inaccurate and insufficient information.

The best interviews I have witnessed empower the child to tell their account using a forensic questioning style, which I teach.

Let’s break down “Can you tell me a little about...?” as an example of a closed question. Firstly, “Can you” closes a good open question as they could simply say “No”. Secondly, it’s inaccurate as you don’t want to know a ‘little’; you want to know a lot. Change this to “tell me about...” and make sure you keep the interview open. Use silences in a way that enables the interviewee to fill the silence; nod, smile, echo, or simply use “okay, go on”. 

Of course, it’s never as simple as purely the re-phrasing of questions; Achieving Best Evidence is much more complex than this. When I teach groups of social workers, I walk them through the entire forensic interviewing process and a far more open way of questioning is taught and examined using role play. This results in the input of the interviewer being minimal and reduces the potential for the child to say what he or she thinks we want to hear, as opposed to what is real and true.

Achieving Best Evidence training

Robin Watts’ CPD accredited ABE course, offered by Sanctuary Training, is a five-day intensive pass or fail course that concentrates on the whole process of forensic interviewing of children and adults. It explores the entire process from planning to the conclusion. Professional actors portray child victims/witnesses realistically and respond credibly to the candidate who will interview them, allowing candidates to test their skills and approaches in a convincing but ‘safe’ environment.

To book a training course, simply visit or call 0333 7000 028.

Further reading

The guidance on Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings can be found here

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