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An advocate for children

Faculty expert in children’s testimony and interviewing continues leadership during pandemic

Contact: Andrea Mestdagh

Three months before the pandemic began, Central Michigan University psychology faculty member Debra Poole was recognized as a leader in children's eyewitness testimony and forensic interviewing  with a lifetime achievement award from the state of Michigan Governor's Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect.

"When I received the award I thought, 'Wait, lifetime achievement — does that mean it's over now? Should I stop?'" Poole said.

The answer was a resounding no. When the global COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, tele-forensic interviewing, or tele-FI, became commonplace. Law enforcement agencies and child advocacy centers reached out to Poole for her three decades of research in and expertise about how children describe events in their lives while being questioned.

"During the pandemic, there's been a heightened sense of urgency to protect maltreated children," Poole said. "No matter what is going on in our personal lives, the nation's children need advocates."

To reduce the risk of virus transmission, law enforcement agencies used different approaches to interviewing. Those that migrated to tele-FI had to adjust to new procedures for multi-disciplinary team members to view interviews and also ways for Children's Advocacy Centers to connect families with services.

Poole said using tele-FI readily allows participation of disability experts and interviewers who speak children's home languages. Additionally, some children seem to be more at ease when they can talk on screen — rather than face-to-face — as they are often familiar with technology and video chats. 

"It's possible this form of communication will relax some children who are in the unfamiliar environment of an interview center by making the situation feel familiar — like something they do every day at home," Poole said.

As the pandemic continues, Poole said it is hard to predict the long-term effects this shift will have on child witness interviewing.

"Tele-FI could survive as an investigative tool," Poole said. "Practitioners are still more comfortable with face-to-face interviews, and I doubt the aftermath of the pandemic will be consistent across jurisdictions or types of cases."

As for Poole, she's planning for retirement next year and is preparing the next generation of child witness researchers and policy makers in the classroom at CMU.

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