Updated: Oct 13
By: Chafica Khodr Agha, Esq., Staff Attorney & Program Associate
Being trauma-informed when interviewing a victim or witness means that you are committed to not re-traumatizing them. That includes formulating questions in a way that does not assign guilt or responsibility, but instead empowers victims and witnesses in assisting your efforts. Doing so: (1) ensures that the victim or witness will cooperate with you, (2) makes the victim or witness feel as if they are safe and can fully trust the criminal justice process, and (3) gives you access to a greater range of details in the victim's or witnesses' account of the crime. When initiating an interview, you may have a knee-jerk inclination to begin by asking questions that start with who, what, when, where, how, and why.
"The trauma survivor often won’t be able to answer who, what, when, where, why and how because that requires the brain to engage the prefrontal cortex, which was overloaded at the time of the trauma. Therefore we can’t treat trauma survivors as witnesses to their own trauma. Rather, they experienced the trauma, so we should ask sensory, emotional, and experiential questions." - Bryan Barlow, Detective, Chicago Police Dept.
Signs of Trauma in a Victim or Witness
Emotional Signs - These can vary significantly from person to person.
Sudden, intrusive thoughts of the event
Loss of memory and difficulty concentrating
Nightmares/flashbacks of the event
Avoiding activities or places that produce memories of the event
Withdrawal and social isolation
Hypervigilance (extreme alertness)
Irritation that manifests as combativeness or defensiveness
Loss of appetite
Inability to sleep/disruption of sleep cycle
Physical - Different people exhibit different symptoms depending on how their brain is affected
Lethargy and fatigue/low energy/walking slowly
Anxiety/panic attacks/inability to cope
Chest pain/migraines/body pain
Language - The choice of words we use and the way we structure a question can make a substantial difference between building rapport with a victim and destroying their trust in you.
Rather than thinking, "what's wrong?", or "why was he there?", or "what was she wearing?", instead think, "what happened to him/her?".
Use open ended questions instead of leading questions, because leading questions suggest the answer.
Safety - Making your victim feel physically safe during each interaction you have with them is ESSENTIAL.
Explain how the interview process works so there are no surprises
Be clear with your expectations and interviewing procedures beforehand
Warn about potential interruptions, as the victim may be thrown off if they are interrupted in the middle of discussing painful details of their victimization
Trust - Be dependable, consistent, and show up for the victim when you say you will.
Follow through with what you say you will do to build trust
Suspend judgement, be aware of your facial expressions, and avoid using statements that are accusatory
Show that you are engaged and actively listening by not interrupting
Interviewing the Victim: Things to Keep in Mind
You may encounter a victim or witness who can recall critical information about a crime but may struggle with remembering other simple details, such as where they were before the crime or what they were doing. They may also provide you with inconsistent answers, or appear evasive and uncooperative, when in reality they are highly traumatized and may think that you are looking for a specific answer. As stated previously, often times, simply shifting the structure of the question just slightly could make a marked difference in the reaction you receive from the victim and the amount of facts they're able to provide you with. It also makes the victim feel as if they are able to answer questions with the information they know and can consciously remember.
Transparency is KEY
Tell the victim or witness the 'difficult stuff' before you get started, including: (1) that you will need to ask them some detailed and seemingly intrusive questions and (2) that you may need to clarify certain terms or inquire further about statements unclear to you
Explain to the victim or witness why you need to do the interview and what will happen throughout the entire process
Ensure that the victim or witness understands that there are no wrong or right answers, i.e., they cannot "fail" the interview
Verbal and Non-Verbal Cues
If a victim seems physically closed off, crosses arms, refuses to make eye contact, and/or changes their tone of voice when a specific topic or question arises:
Slow down the pace of the interview and discuss interim measures such as a break
Shift to other types of questions and come back to more difficult topics once you sense the situation is no longer tense or uncomfortable for the victim
Bring in a victim advocate for support and allow them to speak with the victim privately
Trauma-Informed Sample Language
Avoid leading questions or accusatory language, which may make the victim feel defensive
Examples of leading questions:
"You were in Los Angeles last week, weren't you?"
"You didn't see the stop sign, did you?"
"You and the suspect were best friends, isn't that correct?"
Questions that contain “would,” “should,” “is,” “are,” and “do you think,” all lead to yes or no answers. You will find there are a number of awkward pauses in the conversation when you ask questions containing these words.
Instead start with open-ended questions, which empowers the victim and gives them a sense of control in the conversation. In turn, they tell you what they can remember and not the answer that they think you are looking for.
Examples of open-ended questions:
"Can you tell me what happened?"
"Can you remember anything about the event?"
"Do you remember what you were thinking or feeling at that point?"
"What do you remember saying and doing at that point?"
Example 1 - rather than asking a sexual assault victim "you went on a date with the suspect that night, didn't you?", instead ask, "can you tell me what you remember about the night when you were attacked?", "do you remember meeting, seeing, or speaking with anyone?"(you will get significantly more details)
Example 2 - rather than asking a domestic violence victim “did he strangle you”, instead ask, “did he put his hands on your neck or body?", "were you able to breathe at all?".
Example 3- rather than asking a victim of intimate partner violence or stalking, ”has he ever abused you or beat you?", instead ask, “can you tell me about the times he hurt you or made you feel afraid?".
Save technical questions for the end when you have exhausted all open-ended questions
Examples of technical questions:
"What, if anything, do you remember about the getaway vehicle?"
"I'd like to go back to when you said X. . . do you mind telling me more about that?"
Check out NCVC's webinar recording and PowerPoint on trauma-informed interviewing to learn more about how you can effectively engage and support victims of violent crime in your jurisdiction. Please like and comment below to continue the conversation!