In a case from England, an official report has blamed school personnel for the prosecution’s inability to prosecute child abuse within a residential school. The victim did not disclose the abuse to anyone in authority, but a teacher overheard other students talking about It. According to the news reports, “Staff interviewed the children and informed the local authority the following day.” When the government initiated an independent inquiry into the incidents, police and prosecution blamed the school for not reporting the abuse sooner and for interviewing the students.
I have not been able to determine what questions the staff asked, so I don’t know whether the questions actually contaminated the investigation. The fact that law enforcement is complaining that a report the next day was not soon enough makes me a bit skeptical about the other claims. I also have seen law enforcement blame youth-serving organizations for their own delays and inadequate investigations. It is entirely possible, nevertheless that the school did ask leading questions or inadvertently suggest answers to the children. Those are common mistakes that I also have seen among badly-trained or inexperienced employees.
Staff in this situation face a no-win scenario. If they report only the limited information that they overhead, law enforcement may not act quickly (and may blame the school for not getting more information). If staff members ask more questions, someone somewhere will accuse them of contaminating the case. It’s hard to know, without the benefit of hindsight, how much questioning is too much.
I always advise my clients to limit their questions to determining only whether there is something to report, and to make the questions as open-ended and low-key as possible. Reports with inadequate information don’t help anyone, and actually can hurt the child by leading to a false determination that the concern is not substantiated. Yet we also have to be aware that a perpetrator or investigator may accuse us of skewing a child’s memory whenever we ask enough questions to get details. There is no perfect answer here, only the best balance that experience and judgment can give us.