Conducting interviews with children who have witnessed a crime or have been victims of abuse or neglect represents some of the most challenging and sensitive investigative work for attorneys, social workers and law enforcement officers.
Getting a child to overcome embarrassment and fear and disclose information is a process where the wrong question or reaction can cause a child to withdraw, stop talking or provide misinformation.
A joint research project between the USC Gould School of Law and the USC Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) aims to train future investigative interviewers, helping them to ask the right questions and use the right techniques to get children to talk.
The Virtual Child Witness (VCW) project is a virtual reality computer interface that will eventually live on the Web, making it accessible to students and professionals all over the world. It combines the child witness research of USC Gould Professor Thomas Lyon and the virtual reality advances of the ICT’s Albert “Skip” Rizzo. The interdisciplinary USC collaboration has already received a $49,500 Zumberge Research Grant to jump-start research, expand the program’s capability and allow its authors to seek further funding.
“We need to teach people how to deal with very sensitive questions and take in really awful answers,” said Lyon, holder of the Judge Edward J. and Ruey L. Guirado Chair in Law and Psychology at USC Gould.
Over the past several years, Lyon has won $3.7 million in grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to develop, refine and test the protocol he created to interview maltreated children about their abuse.
As a provost grant reviewer, Lyon heard about Justina, an ICT virtual patient developed with the Keck School of Medicine of USC as a tool to train psychiatry residents, and thought a virtual role player could also serve as a great tool to prepare students for working with children.
“I never imagined that I would be working with computer scientists,” Lyon said. “Now that we have begun, it seems like the perfect combination.”
The virtual patient and virtual child witness collaborations are examples of USC researchers crossing disciplines to solve a problem — in this case, how to improve interviewing skills whether an individual is training to be a psychiatrist or an attorney.
“The child is not a patient per se but the interaction is similar,” said Rizzo, ICT’s associate director for medical virtual reality. “You’ve got to be able to use proper questioning strategy to elicit honest information from the child, and this is where the training process takes place. You can read about this stuff in a book, but you don’t get good at it until you practice. Using virtual characters allows students to practice anytime, any place without doing any harm.”
The VCW project began when current ICT Project Assistant Bruce John ’11 was an undergraduate working for Lyon as a research assistant in his developmental psychology lab.
John developed an initial prototype of a virtual child witness for a game design class during his final semester at USC. Using the questions and techniques that Lyon researched and developed, and the resources available to him through ICT, where he had been working since the summer, John created a program in which a virtual child would react to questions selected by the user. The program could track what types of questions were asked and assess the user’s performance.
The next steps are to move the virtual child onto a system that can be accessed online. ICT researchers built such a platform for SimCoach, the institute’s interactive online virtual human health care guide program that was originally developed so that U.S. veterans could remotely access health care and give support to military people who are hesitant to seek help for mental health issues.
On April 25, John and Thomas Talbot, another member of the ICT medical virtual reality team and co-investigator on the VCW project, will present a paper on the first study conducted with the project at the International Pediatric Simulation Symposia and Workshops, a conference at The New York Academy of Medicine.
The purpose of the study was to test the early prototype of the virtual child witness and evaluate whether it could distinguish between the correct and incorrect types of questions that interviewers should be asking. The system, which was able to assess the skill levels of interviewers, recognized that novice interviewers asked more yes or no questions, while trained interviewers asked a greater percentage of more meaningful open-ended queries. Future research will focus on assessing the system’s value as a teaching tool.
“This project is a great marriage in that Professor Lyon will be able to reach more people on a Web-based platform, and ICT can further advance and tailor SimCoach for its future use as a virtual human research platform,” John said. “It advances the work of the law school, ICT, and the research and development of virtual role players for teaching and training across many applications.”