As Cleo Smith begins to recover from her traumatic ordeal, specialist detectives are preparing to interview the four-year-old to get a clearer picture of how she allegedly ended up held captive in a Carnarvon house.
There has been much speculation about how and when she will be interviewed by police, and whether she will be able to give the detectives the information they need.
Criminologist and psychologist Dr Michelle Noon, who spoke to The West Live’s Ben O’Shea to give some insight into the process, said child witnesses should not be underestimated.
“Kids are great truth-tellers, so children are often fantastic witnesses because they are very, very committed to the truth and they are very committed to facts,” Dr Noon told O’Shea.
“What we say about kids is they are not very conceptual, they’re not very abstract, and anyone who’s been around kids knows this.
“You ask the kid: ‘did you miss me today when you were at school?’ and they look at you blankly. A four-year-old, five-year-old would look at you blankly because they are so concrete in their thinking, and that’s really terrific when it comes to interviewing.”
Dr Noon said the key to interviewing children successfully was to “ascertain some clarity about what truth looks like” and ”lots and lots of rapport-building.”
“So at the beginning of these interviews there’s always lots and lots of rapport-building, offering them lots of fun but also getting the child to be really clear about what truth looks and feels like, and support them to talk in a way that they will correct us when we’re wrong,” Dr Noon said.
She said the way to do that was to make sure the child felt comfortable and not intimidated, which was often achieved by detectives wearing casual dress.
“We have experimental research that shows when kids are being interviewed by people in their civvies, just casual clothes versus uniforms, they’re much more likely to correct that adult if the adults got it wrong,” she said.
“We may even sit, if they feel comfortable, side-by-side with them while they are drawing something and we’re going to have a general conversation with them
“And the other thing we’re going to do is break that interview down into very small bite-sized chunks. So with an adult, it’s not best practice, but you may spend three hours interviewing an adult. With a child, you’d be looking at 20-minutes chunks.”
Dr Noon also said it was common practice for the interview not to be done straight away so there was time to bring in specialist interviewers.
“They don’t want them interviewed by someone with no background in interviewing kids, who have done things to upset the investigation – which can be used really successfully by defence barristers,” she said.
“Often with children, inexperienced interviewers will ask what we call closed or leading questions and you can see this is a style of questioning that’s used with adults to children anyway.”
She also said looking after the child’s mental health was paramount throughout the process.
“The focus we have for anyone of any age is having lots of choice, being really empowering and being very collaborative in our approach, and we know this is much more supportive,” Dr Noon said.
“We would certainly want to wait a little bit of time for the dust to settle, so mental health and wellbeing is a really big focus.”