Youth Services Law

Internal Investigations and #MeToo: Interviewing Witnesses

Adult conducting difficult interview with teenager who looks uncomfortable

This post is part of a continuing series about responding to reports by a now-adult of past abuse at a youth-serving organization. The first few posts discussed general principles, first steps, and what not to say at the beginning of an investigation. This post discusses principles for interviewing the people involved.

The most difficult and perhaps the most important part of an internal investigation is interviewing the accuser, the accused, and other potential witnesses. There are some principles that will help you obtain information from people with as little trauma as possible.

Obtain All Sides of the Story

It goes without saying that you want to hear the accounts of the accuser and the accused staff member. You also want to hear from people who might either corroborate or contradict details of their accounts. Try to hear from everyone on all sides of the controversy, not just the people whose perspective agrees with the organization’s hoped-for narrative.

Your Goal is to Have Cooperative Witnesses

People who are cooperative are more likely to give you more information than if they are hostile. It is natural for witnesses to be nervous, particularly if they still work for your organization. Accusers naturally will be reluctant to revisit a traumatic event. Do what you can to reassure each witness without creating an appearance of bias. Meet in a neutral location, and be inquisitive rather than confrontational. Remember this is an interview, not an interrogation. Make accommodations when you can, always being careful not to compromise the integrity of your investigation.

No Attorneys or Advisors

Yours is not a criminal investigation. In general, the witnesses have no right to have an attorney or advisor with them during your interview. If you are talking to a minor, their parents may have a right in your state to be present. Otherwise, there is no reason for anyone else to be present. You particularly should not interview potential witnesses together. Each person needs to tell you their own account without any input, verbal or otherwise, from anyone else.

Be Honest with Witnesses

Never damage your credibility by misleading a witness or making promises that you cannot keep. For example, you cannot promise absolute confidentiality; you can only promise to do what you can to avoid gossip. Then demonstrate your commitment by not disclosing to them any details of the investigation.

Emphasize Confidentiality

Do not disclose what you have learned from other witnesses or other evidence. If the witness asks questions that you cannot answer, tell them frankly that you cannot breach anyone else’s privacy by giving them more information. Sometimes it is impossible to keep the witness completely in the dark, as they often can figure out quite a bit just from the questions that you ask.  This fact is particularly true if you are seeking information about a specific incident. Always emphasize the need for confidentiality and ask the witness to keep your discussions private.

Remain Objective

It is sometimes tempting to sympathize with a witness to keep the words flowing. Be very careful about creating the impression that you are leaning one way or the other in your investigation. This principle can govern even your choice of words. For example, I use the words “accuser” or “reporter.” Referring to someone as a “victim” creates the impression that I believe their story, while “alleged victim” implies that I do not. Similarly, what they have to say is always an “account,” because “story” can sound to someone like I’m saying “fairy tale.” The accused staff member or client is either “the accused” or “the subject” of the investigation.

Ask for Other People with Knowledge

Remember to ask about other sources of evidence, particularly other people who might have information. Teenagers, for example, usually tell their friends things before they tell any adults. Ask if anyone else at the time may have seen anything. Contemporaneous evidence is very important, so always ask about notes, emails, diary entries, doctor’s visits or any other source of information.

This list is not exhaustive, and there are plenty of other resources to help you with an internal investigation. These points, however, are good first principles for getting information that you need without creating enemies or compromising your investigation.

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