Questionable interviewing technique

Lena Hellblom Sjögren, Ph.D., Licensed psychologist,  2017-09-29

In my computer I found comments from a letter 18 years old. As I know that the same questionable techniques that I describe in this letter are still in use in Sweden I decided to publish the text. The questionable techniques are for example used when police officers, social workers and psychologists want to help children tell about the traumas the children are thought to have suffered – without any evidence for such traumas.

February 8, 1999

From my letter to an English journalist regarding the so called Niko-case in Finland, commenting on questionable interview techniques for children regarding alleged sexual abuse

/…/I have written a short summary mostly from judge Swinton-Thomas J that I plan to include in my written statement in the Finnish case. It´s a sad fact that this method has been imported and been applied and caused children great damage, in Finland, in Norway and in Sweden. Did I tell you that the Finnish trial in itself, and of course the outcome, is very important? Seven psychiatrists, psychologísts and the city of Helsinki are charged in a criminal case by the boy´s parents because of the maltreatment the boy suffered. Hopefully, the trial will be finished this spring. /It did not work out well for the boy and his family, my comment today./

Comments concerning Dr. Bentowim´s methods of interviewing children, taken from authentic cases reported in  FLR 1987

In 1986 the methods developed by Arnon Bentowim and implied by the Finnish therapists, trained by Bentowim and his team,  were criticized in several British cases. The summary below is based on the extracts published in FLR1987. All the facts and descriptions are taken from this source and as far as I can see the aspects taken up  are relevant in the present case. How can it be that methods that judges and psychiatrists in Great Britain already in the middle of the eighties put up serious warnings against could have been imported to Finland and adopted there by professionals? The present case is a case where sexual abuse is alleged with no external evidence – and it´s in these cases you have to be very careful, not to cause the child damage.


About 500 children were referred to the child sexual abuse clinic at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children, London between 1981 when the clinic started and, 1986, when a critical discussion about their methods started.

Dr.Arnon Bentowim, head of the clinic, considered to be a pioneer in the UK, was inspired by American equivalents when he developed his techniques for interviewing sexually abused children. Miss Tranter, psychological social worker, who has been in the clinic since 1981 and has conducted many interviews (married to Dr. Bentowim)  has explained that the clinic found sexual abuse in approximately 95 % of the cases during this period of time.

The majority of cases referred to the clinic were said to be cases with already existing external evidence, cases where for example there had been a conviction or an admission or physical medical evidence. The second category were cases where there was nothing more than a combination (´constellation´) of alerting symptoms. These cases were said to be in minority. The basic technique was begun about 1981 and the use of anatomically complete dolls was introduced 1984-1985.


Suggestible questions to help the child tell about the preconceived ”trauma”

The needs of clinical therapeutic methods may not be the best to meet the needs of the courts in legal proceedings. To help children to unburden themselves, by talking about the abuse they have experienced, has been seen as the therapeutic task.

To help children to unburden themselves, by talking about the abuse they have experienced, has been seen as the therapeutic task.

The result of an investigative technique to detect if abuse has occurred or not is biased if the investigator preconceives that abuse has taken place. This, on the other hand, has been considered to be necessary to help the children to unburden themselves. To make children make statements against their parents Bentowim and his team have considered it necessary to put the children under pressure and to use a leading or hypothetical form of inquiry. But this technique lays itself open to attack upon the ground that it has suggested the answers given. When a child is put under pressure it is a risk that the child will say that something has happened which has not in fact occurred.


Judge Swinton-Thomas got the transcript of miss Tranter´s interview with IN, a girl 6 years old, living in a fosterhome where the fosterparents suspected sexual abuse in the girl´s home. She was asked questions about the second defendant, her mother´s cohabittee.

–                Did he put it in a little way or a long way?

IN shrugged her shoulders.

–                What sort of willie did he have? Was it a soft, squiggy willie or a hard willie?

IN:             Hard.

–                Hard?

IN:             Yes.

–                And when he put it in your little hole how did you like that?

IN:             ?

IN:             No he didn´t do it.

–                When he put it in there did that sometimes make you feel sore?

IN shrugged her shoulders.

–                Did it sometimes hurt?

IN: No, he never really did it to me.

–                But when he did do it, was it a nice feeling or a yucky feeling?

IN:             Yucky.

–                Oh, a jucky feeling, and did it hurt you sometimes?

IN:             He didn´t do it to me.


There are many more excerpts from the transcript when for example miss Tranter names the dolls and asks hypothetical questions. Here is from a passage about masturbation:

–                I think you have been very clear. Did he ever want you to touch his willie?

IN:             No.

–                If he had done how would he have liked you to touch it? Could you show me with my hand because there aren´t any fingers on this doll. Could you show me how? Use my hand to show me how he would like you to touch it? Tell me? Would he like you to touch it with one finger?

IN:             One.

–                One finger, and would he like you to keep your finger still or move it around a bit. How would he like you to move it? I´ll let my finger go limp. Could you just move my finger and show me how he would like you to touch it?


IN giggled and there was a quick touching of the finger that was interpreted by miss Tranter as a masturbatory gesture, something that Dr. Kahn, a psychiatrist ,was very critical to in his evidence.


Judge Swinton Thomas commented as  he stressed that it would be wrong in the context of one particular case to make any overall criticism of those methods :

”It will be readily seen from the passages that I have read that considerable pressure was brought to bear upon the child. Miss Tranter said in evidence that it was necessary to do so because of the trauma suffered by the child in relation to the acts of indecency, and, accordingly, the view of the unit at Great Ormond Street, is that it is necessary to match that trauma by placing an equal degree of pressure on the child  in order to make the child talk about was has occurred. The object is to get children to talk about what has happened, and that is, of course very laudable. However, there must, in my view, using that technique, be a very real risk, that the child will say that something has occurred which has not. It is common ground that the technique is, to some extent, still in experimental stages and as at the moment I must have some reservations as to whether the technique of interviewing children does necessarily elicit the truth.”


The social worker came to a very firm conclusion that the cohabitee had sexually assaulted the girl in some five different ways and that the mother had condoned it. The expert also considered that there were would be a high risk of further abuse if the child were returned home.

However the judge came to the conclusion that the best interest of the child would be served by returning the child to her mother, as quickly as possible.


An unethical and horrifying technique

Two psychiatrists made critical statements, in this case, dr Connel and Dr. Kahn, both previous chairman of the Child and Adolscence sections of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. According to judge Swinton-Thomas dr, Connel said in relation to the suggestibility of the child that the technique that had been used horrified him.

Dr. Connel questioned both the scientific and the clinical value of the technique. He said in his evidence:

”It is my view that it should be considered  unethical to use this technique as an exploratory technique in the case of non-admitted child abuse.”


In his evidence dr Kahn said about the interview with IN:

In every instance it was assumed that the suggested activity had actually taken place. I have been seriously concerned about the way in which any spontaneous activity of the child was firmly discouraged and that she was repeatedly brought back to the particular subject that the questioner had in mind. It is easier to lead a subject, adult or child, to an answer that is predetermined in the questioner´s mind.”


Dr. Bentowim, after having seen part of the video, said in his evidence that it was very important that the child´s statement should be regarded as the primary evidence. According to the judge dr Bentowim had ”recognized the dangers of this technique producing an answer which might turn out on investigation to be the wrong answer. He also recognized, as I understood it, that the technique as an investigative tool was still, to some extent, in the experimental stage.”


Further comments

It is said by judge Swinton-Thomas J that no overall criticism of these methods can be made from one single case. But as the same criticism has been repeated in several cases there is substantial ground to conclude that these methods applied as a diagnostic instrument to decide whether sexual abuse has taken place or not, is not to be recommended.

A technique of questioning where the interrogator has preconceived ideas about what has happened and wants to help the child to tell about that (secret of abuse) clashes with the principle of basic requirement of justice that nobody should have to face a finding of serious misconduct without the opportunity of having the allegations against him clearly specified and cogently proved.

The use of hypothetical questions, so-called if-questions, see example above, has been very strongly criticized by ”Statsadvokaten”  in Norway in a report from 1994. The background for this was that Tilman Fürniss, a colleague to Bentowim in Great Ormond Street trained professionals in the Nic Waal institute in Oslo. They thereafter questioned preschool children in Bjugn with this questionable technique (where sexual abuse was alleged to have occurred in a daycare center).

As a psychologist, I also strongly want to question the therapeutic value of this technique. A child who in fact has experienced sexual abuse is not helped with this kind of questions. That child needs to talk to someone who puts open-ended questions and takes the time to listen to what the child has to tell with that child´s own words.

It was in August 1990 that dr Bentowim and his team lectured three of the involved helpers in the Finnish case. The way psychiatrist Liisa Kohvakka and psychologist  May Stenberg have put questions to the Finnish boy, at that time four years old, have similarities to the techniques that have been referred and criticized in the British cases.


The helpers had preconceived ideas that sexual abuse had taken place in the family and they asked leading questions, forced the little boy to play with anatomic dolls and put him under big pressure over and over again.


Although the child never said anything about abuse in his home the professionals interpreted him as an incest victim. With no substantial ground other than their own fantasies they assessed the risk that the boy might be subjected to acts of sexual indecency in his home so big that he should not be allowed to stay with his family, not even to be alone with any of his parents under access.



My comment 18 years later

It is sad that the same questionable technique of interrogating children has been practiced in Sweden, forwarded by a professor who got a reputation as a memory expert, but has caused much harm to many people, also children. One  example is his involvement in the case of a 4-year old boy, Kevin, who was found murdered. By the help of this so-called memory expert, Kevin´s playmate and his brother were interrogated as suspects.  Over and over again these two boys were forced to answer on the suggestible questions put to them.  After a long time the police found them guilty of having murdered Kevin – without any real proof and without a trial.

All cases that this memory professor, still employed at Stockholm University, has been involved in ought be thoroughly investigated. This has been demanded in at least one daily Swedish paper – and the demand ought to be realized.