Many years ago, I interviewed a child about sexual molestation where she claimed mom's boyfriend molested her when mom was at work. This was typical for child protective investigators; more routine than the public knows.
The child's language did not include the word "molest."
The interview was recorded and transcribed.
The alleged perpetrator was asked if he would be willing to write out a statement about what happened before the interview and agreed, stating without qualification, "I did not molest her" in the free editing process. This is a Reliable Denial for the accusation of "molestation."
The analysis of his statement, however, showed deception.
I sent the statement to an analyst and instructor with more than 30 years experience, with only the allegation. While awaiting the response, I analyzed the child's interview transcript. In this, I asked "what happened?", followed by "what happened, next?" and avoided introducing any new language to the child, as is the wont of legally sound interviews with children. The child was just shy of 10 years of age.
He returned it with "deception indicated" in the precise places that my analysis showed.
The child's transcript (statement) showed veracity.
Lastly, I compared his written statement with the timeline created by the child's statement, focusing in, particularly, on his whereabouts when the alleged molestation took place. His whereabouts matched the description given by the child.
The family was in an uproar with much anger towards me because while the investigation continued, the boyfriend voluntarily moved out of the apartment.
The above account has taken place many times over the years, but in this case, there was one significant difference.
The boyfriend took and passed a polygraph for local law enforcement.
Perplexed, I sought to learn the content of the pre-polygraph examination interview, and the specific wording of the polygraph questions. The pre-screening interview can literally teach the subject how to beat the test. It is to contaminate the results.
I believe the polygraph, when applied with only the subject's own words, has an accuracy rate even more than what polygraph examiners claim.
The case was closed and the boyfriend moved back in with the family. Years later, someone close to the family said, "yeah, he did it again."
What went wrong?
Like us, children have a personal, subjective dictionary, with each individual having his or her own. In statement analysis, we not only avoid interpreting words, we literally seek to "decode" the internal dictionary of each subject.
In training seminars, I ask attendees to write down the first thing that comes to mind when I say a word.
When I choose "boy", in a class of 25 investigators, the understanding of the word "boy" shows:
New born infant boys.
7 year old Little League boys.
21 year old military soldiers overseas.
The range of 21 years shows just how vast this internal dictionary of subjective words is.
In child protective cases, the perpetrator, too, has his own language and sometimes he shares this with the victim.
One child said she didn't want to "play monopoly no more" with her mother's live in boyfriend. At an age being too young to play the board game, "Monopoly", the child protective worker asked, "How do you play Monopoly?" and the child described a sexual assault.
Another described the "ice cream cone surprise" a deviant devised for sexual abuse.
"We play WWF when mommy isn't home!"
My response to this was, "What does WWF look like?" The description was criminal.
One child had "cool freezer pops" that her neighbor gave to her whenever she slept over her little girlfriend's house. Her girlfriend's dad was "really cool" and "makes my favorite flavor" and "they are specially made just for me!" He made her feel wanted, unique and special. Our investigation, on a Friday noon preempted what still bothers me today:
A planned Friday sleepover, that day, after school.
On this sleepover, she would be "really special" because her girlfriend and her mother would be out of town at a Girl Scout's convention and "they love me so much that I was still invited!"
In fact, she was "so special" that the sleep over was actually a secret she could not even tell her girlfriend. It was just between "me and her dad. He really loves me!"
The freezer pops were laced with Vodka.
He had been showing her "yucky" movies and this "thing" (sexual device) that "only we are allowed to touch it."
He had his big night planned and if you know anything about most states' child protective services: they are overrun and investigations get delayed frequently.
"I did not molest her" was true, according to his internal subjective dictionary.
The victim never claimed he "molested" her: she said he "tickled her" above and below her clothing.
In sexual abuse investigations, for all ages, the investigator/interviewer should never accept any word related to sexual activity without asking the subject to define the term. This is a principle without exception. Not for children, nor for adults, as the definition of "sex" varies dramatically from person to person. This includes discussion between spouses on infidelity. "Linguistic Gymnastics" will bend words out of proportion and with the polygraph, the subject's own definitions must be learned.
Accomplished, pathological or habitual liars, are so good at 'word-smithing' or 'linguistic gymnastics' that they hold to a very strong expectation that you will interpret their words, rather than listen to them and ask appropriate clarifying questions.
Subject: "Me? Have sex with her? You'd have to be sick in the head to have sex with her! She's retarded!"
This statement led to:
"Sir, do you have a mental health diagnosis?"
In his subjective dictionary, his illness was in his "head."
He was arrested for sexual exploitation of a woman under guardianship, who was incapable of giving consent.
Do not interpret.
It only takes a few extra moments in an interview to ask,
"What is sex?"
Even when an answer appears thorough, we always ask,
"What does ______ sex look like?"
The answers are often shocking. We ask the question with the wording "look like" for many things, but especially sex. This may appear a "child interview only" type of question, but if you apply it in a sexual assault case, you will find that whatever your personal definition of ______ sex is, you will find others who have very different viewpoints.
Habitual Liars are counting on you and I to interpret their words. This is how the habitual liar, one who is smooth and practiced, has such a high success rate.
In the polygraph, "Did you molest ______?" with the answer, "no" showed no physiological reaction.
Had he been asked, "Did you tickle her on her chest?" the results would have been different.
Polygraph examiners well trained in Statement Analysis are a force for justice.
Investigators assigned to sex crimes unit will benefit from language specific training found in our Advanced Course. Learning the difference between statements made coming from experiential memory is key, but even perseveration within the statements presents a unique challenge beyond what most trainings cover.