By Joel Phelps
July 11-15 is National Forensic Interviewers Week. In Clark County there is a team of three such professionals whose job it is to listen as victims of abuse tell them about the worst day of their life.
Forensic interviewers play an integral part in bringing child abusers to justice and to the healing process for the victims.
These three forensic interviewers, Cambria Carter, Stephanie Hrabal, and Doug Cherry, work tirelessly at the Percy and Donna Malone Child Safety Center. We talked to them about the challenges of their work and the rewards it reaps.
What does a forensic interviewer do?
Stephanie: Our job is to help create a safe space for that child to be able to share their story. We do so in a neutral, non-leading way so the investigators involved will be able to act appropriately after receiving the information the child gives during the interview. Providing the opportunity for a child to tell what happened through a forensic interview helps reduce the number of times a child has to be interviewed by others.
Cambria: The main thing they do is conduct the forensic interview. That is an interview that we get a referral from either law enforcement, CACD, or DHS. The interview is neutral and fact-finding. Sometimes we might know a few details, sometimes we may not. There is a certain protocol we use called ChildFirst, and we go through that protocol to find out what happened in a way that is child-led.
Why is your job important to the community?
Stephanie: At the Child Safety Center, we are also educating community children about safety. Our hope is to empower kids to share their story if they have been hurt and not keep these things a secret. For years, abuse wasn’t talked about; it was something that was often swept under the rug, and it was taboo to talk about it in the home or in the community. As a CAC we are trying hard to counteract that, to empower each victim and family that comes here to know there are others like them and they’re not alone. Also that there is hope for healing in the midst of the all the chaos and the hurt that has come from this.
Cambria: We’re here for the child. That’s our main concern and we want them to feel safe and share their story with us — if the child is able to talk about whatever happened — in a place that is safe and child-friendly. To me that’s the most important thing.
Doug: The forensic interviewer gives a voice to a child victim of abuse. It’s done in a safe, non-leading context: the child is free to say what they want to say. They don’t have to be worried about getting in trouble or saying the wrong thing. It gives a voice to the child victim, and that voice can be heard by investigators and prosecutors in the judicial process as well.
What education or training do you need to be a forensic interviewer?
Stephanie: There’s not a degree for forensic interviewing. The majority of forensic interviewers have some type of social work -related background, but that’s not necessarily the requirement. What is required is that they go through a training course for a forensic interviewing protocol. The training for ChildFirst is comprised of 40 hours. Within the training, each person has to do mock interviews and testing in order to complete the course and be certified to start doing interviews. We also have to participate in peer reviews, a requirement for us to continue doing interviews and keeping up to standards for years to come.
Cambria: I think we all have different backgrounds. When I was in college, I knew I wanted to be a forensic interviewer. My degree was in child development, and I did my internship with a child advocacy center. There is also a weeklong program for training on the Child First protocol we follow, and we have to attend.
What qualities and skillsets does a forensic interviewer need?
Cambria: One of the first things we say is that “My job is to listen.” I think you need to be a very good active listener, and be able to process the information you’re getting while you’re listening. And each case is different: I can’t base what the next interview will be like on previous ones. You also need compassion, because these children have just gone through something and you’re listening to their story. You must be able to stay neutral, but also be able to show you’re listening to that child and that they feel safe with you.
Doug: I think the ability to build rapport and trust with the child in pretty short order is important.
Stephanie: I think it’s important for an interviewer to be educated. By knowing about things like child development, linguistics, and child abuse dynamics, we can provide better interviews. Another important piece is to have a heart for doing it—giving a child that chance to be heard.
Considering the heartbreaking stories you hear, how do you deal with your own emotions?
Cambria: The job we do can sometimes be emotionally demanding on us. We have a really great team, and we can discuss the different cases and share our thoughts and feelings. To see the child through the whole process, you do get to see the hope and healing that happens with this child. It’s sometimes just getting to see the relief of a child getting to share their story and that the child’s story got heard.
Doug: It’s vicarious trauma. We’re in a position where we’re asking a child to recall in detail the worst day of their life. There’s a lot of trauma there. Even as interviewers we feel that and have to process that ourselves.
Stephanie: We put a lot of emphasis on wellness at the Center. We have a great team that supports us that also works hard to help the children and families purse justice. We do a lot of training related to secondary traumatic stress and self-care so we can keep on doing this work effectively.
Is it rewarding work? How so?
Stephanie: It’s absolutely rewarding. Our job is vital to this process — to get a child from that place of hurt and trauma to the point of healing and being able to thrive. For a child to have a sense of normalcy without this heavy burden weighing on them. Being able to provide that face-to-face conversation with them is one of the first steps in the healing process. It’s also an important part of pursuing justice.
Cambria: Most definitely. You’re getting to watch this child through the whole process and getting them to just be a child again. It’s rewarding getting see that relief and change in the child.
Doug: It’s rewarding to give that voice to the child so that they can be heard both on a therapeutic end but also on the judicial end.