3.11 Video Recorded Interviews and Achieving Best Evidence within S47 investigations

This chapter was rewritten in 2023. It should be read alongside the national Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings (2022) guidance which includes the special measures required for use with all vulnerable or intimidated witnesses and instruction on the process and best practice in undertaking video recorded interviews (VRIs). This policy focuses on Norfolk practice expectations around joint working within S47 investigations where a VRI interview is part of the S47 enquiry

1. Introduction

The investigation into allegations of child abuse is a crucial stage in protecting children. Although other agencies will be involved in aspects of the investigation process the Police and Children’s Services (CS) take lead roles. This Policy is designed to help staff from the two agencies to work together and to promote best practice in Norfolk.

2. Principles

When undertaking a joint investigation into child abuse under Section 47, all agencies must:

  • Recognise the protection of the child is paramount;
  • Provide an effective, coordinated approach, keeping the needs of the child central to all planning;
  • Recognise that the burden of proof in protecting children is different than in criminal proceedings. All agencies must take account of the need to act on both actual significant harm and the likelihood that a child is suffering significant harm.
  • Keep to the absolute minimum the number of times the child is interviewed and medically examined;
  • Ensure that relevant parents/ carers, where appropriate, are involved in and informed about the enquiry and are prepared for any child protection conference, which may follow;
  • Create the basis for future help and support to the child and family on a planned and coordinated basis;
  • Obtain as far as possible, the child’s best evidence for any future trial and/or family court hearing;
  • Ensure accurate records are maintained that provide a rationale for the enquiry and decision making process;
  • Ensure post enquiry intervention strategies are in place.

3. Decision making for child protection investigations

A strategy discussion must be convened wherever there is reasonable cause to suspect a child has suffered or is likely to suffer significant harm, including where allegations have been made.  The chairing and recording of the strategy meeting is the responsibility of Children’s Services and will be open to disclosure in criminal proceedings. (See also action to be taken where there is a risk to the life of a child or likelihood of serious immediate harm- Flowchart 3 Immediate Protection – Working Together 2023 p102).).

Discussions should always involve the police, health, the referring agency and any other professionals known to be involved with the child/family.  The aim of the meeting/discussion is to decide whether a Section 47 enquiry and/or criminal investigation is required and if so, to agree objectives and individual roles within the investigation and make decisions on how the investigation will proceed.

The outcome of the meeting/ discussion will be recorded to include:

Where allegations suggest an ABE interview is or may be required, consideration should also be given to:

  • What action is necessary for the immediate protection of the child based on a risk assessment?
  • Whether or not to interview other children in the household;
  • What immediate support the child and family require;
  • Any legal action which may need to be taken and by whom;
  • What further information is required and who will obtain this;
  • What action, if any, is necessary to avoid the subject of the interview talking to other suspected witnesses before their interview is conducted?

Please note, where an ABE interview of the child is required, this should take place as soon as possible. Any delay in the interview should only be in the interests of the child and the reasons recorded. For example, careful consideration should be given to whether an evening/ night visit should be made, particularly if this would involve waking up the child(ren).

Whether an ABE can be achieved or not; it is totally appropriate for decision making to take place to mitigate risk i.e. Use of Police Protection powers and arrest of suspect, based on the account given to the professional.

Dealing With Issues Requiring Resolution

It is expected that all agencies provide information and jointly contribute to decision-making and the planning of child protection enquiries at the Strategy Discussion. When important issues between safeguarding agencies are

  • not resolved through a Strategy Discussion
  • not referred to CS for a Strategy Discussion (e.g ABE interview taking place before discussion with CS or EDT)

This must be recorded and referred to senior managers within Children’s Services and Police. An interagency discussion will then take place at senior manager level to resolve areas of disagreement/ difficulty; (See Resolving Disagreements policy)

Any delays by Police or Children’s Services in undertaking single or joint investigations must be recorded and reported to managers at senior levels.

4. Planning and Preparation for the Investigative Interview

Wherever possible, the allocated social worker and police officer should be present at the Strategy Meeting to ensure they are informed of the background information and plan. They should then work together on the detail of the interview process to ensure that both organisations’ objectives are met in terms of evidence gathering and safeguarding.  Proper interview planning is integral to this process and both police and social worker should be actively involved in the interview planning process.

Principles around consent for interview:

  • Where the child has sufficient understanding, consent must always be obtained from the child.
  • To enable consent to be given, adequate information must be given regarding the purpose of the interview.
  • Where a DVD recording is to be made the child must be informed about who may see the interview recording and why.
  • The needs and safety of the child must be the first consideration when determining at what point parents/carers should be informed of the concerns and that their child is being/has been interviewed.
  • The child should never be interviewed (or asked about consent for interview) in the presence of an alleged or suspected perpetrator.
  • It is generally presumed that the parents or carers of a child witness will be informed of any interview before it takes place; this presumption is independent of consent.
  • Where concerns or allegations involve the parent or carer it may be necessary to interview a suspected child victim without the knowledge of the parent or carer. Such circumstances include the possibility that a child would be threatened or otherwise coerced into silence; a strong likelihood that important evidence would be destroyed; or that the child in question did not wish the parent to be involved and is competent to take that decision.
  • Proceeding with the interview in the absence of parental knowledge needs to be carefully managed and always recorded. 
  • Following the interview, if it is apparent that a criminal prosecution may follow and that the child will be required as a witness, then both the child and appropriate carers should be fully informed of the implications of such a course of action. At no point must a child, parent(s) or carer(s) be led to believe that the Court will not require the child’s oral evidence.

Victim Strategy

If the child has made a clear disclosure to a professional, a clarification assessment is not required. Their evidence should be preserved for their pre-recorded Evidence- in- Chief (ABE). However an ABELS needs assessment may still be required so that a true understanding of their speech and language levels can be understood and /or use of Intermediary considered (see below).

If a clear disclosure has not been made to a professional, a clarification assessment is likely to be appropriate this should take place by the police officer with the social worker present. The same questioning technique should be adopted during the assessment to that of the Video Recorded Interview. The police and social worker should agree beforehand which questions should be asked.

In planning the interview, consideration must first be given to background information which might affect how the child is able to recall events when questioned and how well the police officers and/or social worker might be able to create a rapport with the child. This includes information gathered in any previous Children’s social care assessments or any Education Health and Care Plan, EHCP, as well as consideration of the impact of the suspected abuse on the child and/or the impact of any other difficulties they have experienced due to prior abuse or discrimination.  (see ABE in Criminal Proceeedings 2022 p34-39 and p72-77 re: rapport building and managing complexities).

Use of intermediaries and/or interpreters will be required where there are known language barriers through disability, age or English not being the child’s first language.

General factors to be explored through an assessment prior to interview

  • The child’s preferred name/form of address
  • The child’s ability and willingness to talk within a formal interview setting to a police officer, children’s social care worker or other trained interviewer
  • An explanation to the child of the reason for an interview
  • The ground rules for the interview
  • The opportunity to practice answering open questions
  • The opportunity to practice a free narrative
  • The child’s use of language and understanding of relevant concepts such as time and age
  • Any special requirements the child may have (e.g. do they suffer from separation anxiety or have an impairment?
  • Any apparent clinical or psychiatric problems (e.g. panic attacks, depression) that may impact upon the interview, and for which the child may require referral for a formal assessment

Assessment prior to interview

The assessment process should never replace or overshadow the substantive interview with the child. So far as possible, it should adhere to the following basic principles:

  • Listen to the child. Any question directed to the child at this stage must be in accordance with ABE;
  • Never stop a child who is freely recalling significant events;
  • An accurate and detailed record of a discussion must be made. If the discussion includes a disclosure of abuse, that part must be recorded verbatim and contemporaneously or, at the very least, as soon as possible after the contact. Notes should be made on the joint investigation forms or in the Police Officer’s notebook. Times and persons present should be included;
  • Record all subsequent events up to the time of the substantive interview;
  • Even if no disclosure of a potential criminal offence is made, accurate recording is essential as decisions about risk may be made on the strength of them;
  • If there are concerns in respect of other siblings in the household, ensure they might not overhear conversations which might contaminate evidence.

ABE Lanugage screening tool (ABELS) and use of Registered Intermediaries

ABELS is a language-screening tool for use by police officers in the ABE interviews of children. It identifies when a child may have difficulty communicating in an achieving best evidence (ABE) interview.  The results enable officers to make a decision and justify their reasoning about how to proceed. ABELS is designed to help police officers to recognise when a Registered Intermediary is needed where this is not known, as well as highlighting areas of language which might be problematic in ABE.

There may be situations where it is simply not possible to use ABELS prior to speaking to the child i.e. in acute safeguarding cases, where there are language barriers or it is impractical to do so. In such cases, a discussion should take place with the Detective Sergeant to ensure the rationale is documented.

There will also be situations where it is known that a registered Intermediary is required for the child witness due to information held by social care or education colleagues and planning for intermediary inclusion in the investigation process should begin without delay.

When to Consult Experts or Interpreters

It will be necessary to consult with experts or interpreters to agree what, if any, intermediary role they should take during the interview in the following circumstances:

  • The child’s first language is not English;
  • The child has a mental disorder/is psychologically disturbed;
  • The child has a disability or a sensory impairment;
  • Members of the team do not have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the child’s racial, religious or cultural background;
  • Where unusual forms of abuse are suspected.
  • The outcome of an ABELS assessment suggests the child may struggle to coherently recall events.

5. The Investigative Interview and the role of police officers in Video Recorded Interviews

The basic goal of an interview with a witness is to obtain an accurate and reliable account in a way which is fair, is in the witness’s interests and is acceptable to the court. The 2022 national guidance (see page 78-95) recommends four phases

  1. Rapport
  2. Free-narrative account
  3. a. Topic division followed by clarification and development of the account
  1. b. Systematic introduction and probing of any wider investigative material that may be important to the investigation
  2. Closure

In Norfolk, the investigative interview will be carried out by two investigating police officer(s). They may be joined in the interview by a registered Intermediary, interpreter, or support person. This will be determined on a case-by-case basis. All officers interviewing children will have had the required Video Recorded Interview (VRI) training for carrying out ABE interviews with children, training in using the ABE language screening tool and will have thorough knowledge and experience of working in partnership with children’s services under Section 47 of the Children Act (1989) and Working Together 2023.

They will work in partnership with the social worker to prepare for the interview, will have reviewed the known background information alongside the social worker and prepared questions and points of interest in advance.

The role of Social Worker in Video Recorded Interviews

The allocated social worker for the child protection investigation under Section 47 should be in attendance at the interview wherever possible, as well as jointly involved in the planning. They should be able to watch the interview first hand to monitor and ensure any questions pertinent to the section 47 enquiry are addressed. This ensures that the child does not have to be re-questioned about traumatic events and avoids introducing inconsistency into investigations which can cause problems at court. They might also assist the police officers with the rapport building, assessment interview and/or ensuring all the child’s needs are met during the process (including basic needs around food, drink etc).

In the event that it is absolutely necessary to complete an interview without the allocated social worker present, this must be agreed at the Strategy Meeting and consideration given to who is best to be the support person for the child.  

The lead interviewing police officer will be required to update the social worker e.g the Monday morning where an interview has taken place at the weekend. 

Role of the Support Worker in Video Recorded Interviews

There may be occasions where another worker is closer to the child than the social worker. Where it is in the child’s best interests, this worker may support rapport building and accompany the child to the interview where they have had appropriate training in the ABE process and their role within it.

6. Joint planning and decision-making following the Video Recorded Interview

Victim Care Strategy

Following the interview, the interviewing police officers should discuss and plan the outstanding elements of the S47 investigation with the allocated social worker to ensure appropriate safety is in place. The care of the child victim/ witness is paramount. This might include wider support services such as SARC, counselling services, CAMHS, ISVA, IDVAs etc.

The Child Who Becomes a Suspect

Children who are being interviewed as witnesses may make a statement during the interview that implies they are also abusers or disclose they have committed other crimes. If a child victim appears to be a suspect during the course of an interview, a decision will have to be made on whether to proceed or terminate the interview. The interviewers should take a short break to consult on the matter with the social worker.

If it is concluded that the evidence of the child as suspect is paramount in a particular case, the interview should be terminated so that any further questioning can be carried out in accordance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 guidance. (This may occur when dealing with an older child).

A short debriefing between the interviewers and social worker will take place to evaluate information and evidence obtained and consider the need for a follow up Strategy Discussion.

Assessment of Risk

Following the interview, it is important for the interviewing police officers and social worker to reflect on what has been heard to support further decision-making. This might include reflection on whether the child is safe to remain at or return home and should include discussion about:

  • Seriousness of any injury/abuse;
  • Is the abuse current?
  • Previous injuries/abuse;
  • Availability of a protective person – have they demonstrated a willingness/ability to protect?
  • Any history of family violence?
  • Any history of parenting and any previous concerns?
  • History of drug abuse, alcohol abuse or mental illness;
  • What supportive networks are available?
  • The views and wishes of the child

A follow up Strategy Discussion should be convened to discuss the findings from the VRI and to agree next steps in partnership with all agencies, including the need for ongoing child protection planning through conference.

Longer Term Planning

Whether or not child protection planning takes place, the police officer must update the social worker regarding the criminal proceedings.

When a criminal proceedings are ongoing , the police will:

  • Involve the child in the decision making process – informing him/her that the DVD will be played in court and they will be cross-examined, obtaining the child’s consent to do this;
  • Prepare the child for court. Enabling the child to view the DVD to refresh their memory;
  • Guide the child and their carers on the court process;
  • Keep the allocated worker updated

Where criminal proceedings do not take place (NFA Procedure)

At the point the police or the CPS conclude that no further action (NFA) will be taken with regard to a criminal prosecution:

  • The police officer will update the social worker and will provide a succinct written summary of the NFA decision to include the reasoning behind it. Both parties will ensure that their respective internal records are updated with this summary to ensure consistency.
  • Both parties will agree any further work that needs to be completed from a safeguarding perspective at this stage. This includes agreement as to how other parties are to be updated so that they also understand the reasoning behind the decision and are left in no doubt as to what action to take should further child protection concerns come to light.
  • Depending upon the particular circumstances of the case, this discussion may need to be held between supervisory staff from the police and CSC or take the form of a Strategy Discussion.
  • Depending upon the particular circumstances of the case consideration should be given to seeking legal advice at this stage and/or to holding a legal strategy meeting.
  • If agencies do not agree at this stage as to further safeguarding action the Resolving Professional Disagreements process should be followed.
  • All of the above considerations and agreements should be recorded on police and CSC records and these records should not be finalised until signed off by a supervisor.

Protocol Monitoring and Reviewing Arrangements

  • There will be regular strategic meetings between Police and Children’s Services to monitor arrangements contained within this policy
  • Any concerns should be followed up and consideration given to a joint audit of Strategy Discussions and ABE interviews to ensure good practice is promoted;
  • Police and Children’s services commit to deliver comprehensive training to all professionals undertaking or involved in joint Section 47 investigation involving ABE interviews.
  • This policy should be provided and referenced as part of police, social worker or support worker training.