Parental Abuse Interviews in Human Trafficking Investigations

Written By: Philip A. Mullenix
Feb 03, 2021

Among the interviewing challenges faced by human trafficking investigators is the issue of parental abuse of a trafficking victim. How does an investigator approach this topic?

When suspicion arises that the victim may have been trafficked by one or more parents, it’s advisable to interview the victim’s friends first, then siblings. If those conversations yield stronger suspicions, then the parent/parents need to be interviewed. Before raising this topic with a parent, however, an investigator must be certain to first exhaust the parent’s cooperation in obtaining all other potential evidence from the parent’s home. The risk is obvious that once the topic of parental abuse is introduced an offended parent may become defensive, shut down, or actively seek out and destroy evidence.

While interviewing a victim’s friend, the investigator should initially be circumspect rather than direct. Useful opening questions are “What can you tell me about Ashley’s home life?” followed by the more focused “Can you describe for me Ashley’s relationship with her parents?”. If either of these questions elicit verbal, nonverbal, or paralinguistic behavior that reflects stress or deception, or if the substantive answers hint at actual abuse, then increasingly specific follow-up questions are appropriate. Examples of specific closed questions include:

  • “What did you see Ashley’s parents do or say to her that was hurtful?”
  • “What did Ashley say her parents did or said to her that hurt her?”
  • “Did Ashley’s parents take her places she didn’t like to go or to see people she didn’t like to be with? If so, where, who were they, and what happened at those places or with those people? Did you see this happen, or did Ashley just tell you about it?”
  • “Did Ashley’s parents have people over to see Ashley that Ashley didn’t want to be with? If so, who were they, and what did they do? Did you ever see this happen, or did Ashley just tell you about it?”

Each affirmative response should then trigger deeper and more narrowly pointed inquiries. The investigator must be empathetic, patient, and gentle both in the formulation as well as the presentation of follow-up questions. One wrong word, and the initiative fails. It’s helpful to frequently use both the victim’s name and the name of the friend being interviewed.

Sibling interviews are complicated by the reality that they feel controlled by their parent or may even be a victim as well. Further, they may tell their parents about the interview once it’s completed, thereby alienating a parent from further cooperation with the investigation. Regardless, if a victim’s friend indicates that parental abuse may have occurred, then siblings should be questioned. Timing of the interview, however, occur after the parents have provided full cooperation for the collection of evidence at the family home and after that process has been completed.

Opening questions to victim siblings should be similarly circumspect and designed to elicit free recall narratives versus simple yes/no responses. Examples may include: “How does Ashley get along with your parents? What does Ashley like best about mom? About dad? What does she like the least about mom? About dad? What things does Ashley like doing the most with her mom? Her dad? What things does Ashley like doing the least with her mom? Her dad?” If any of these questions produce fearful or deceptive demeanor, or if the substantive answers indicate potential abuse, then examples of specific closed follow up inquiries may include:

  • “What kinds of things did mom/dad say/do to Ashley that hurt her?”
  • “What kinds of things did mom/dad make Ashley do that hurt her?”
  • “What people did mom/dad make Ashley see that she didn’t like to be with? Where? What did you see? What did Ashley say happened?”
  • “How did Ashley look after she was with some of those people? How did Ashley say she felt after being with those people?”

Just as with the interviews of victims’ friends, increasingly pointed follow-up questions should be gently, patiently, and empathetically posed in response to any affirmative responses. Every effort, however, must be made to substantiate any disclosure. Victims are to be given credence, but false accusations are not uncommon. It’s the investigator’s delicate task to follow the tracks in the snow with as much objectivity toward the evidence as zeal for a victim’s safety.

When parental abuse or active participation in a trafficking scheme is suspected, the parent should be interviewed. Friends or siblings are to be protected, so confidentiality of the source of any incriminating information must be preserved. Caution is to be exercised not to either deliberately or inadvertently disclose to a suspected parent any information that could have been known only by a victim’s sibling or identifiable friend.

Interviewing a parent who is suspected of trafficking their own child should be more direct than the approach taken with a victim’s friend or sibling. It’s better to be brutally honest with a suspected trafficking parent by identifying the issue and asking questions in a matter-of-fact non-judgmental tone.

A brief summation of the issue should be described by the interviewer together with an explanation why it’s necessary to pursue this line of inquiry. Then the interviewer should straightforwardly ask the parent whether they did what is suspected. If there is evidence that merits explanation by the parent, then that evidence should be presented and discussed. Caution is to be exercised not to disclose evidence that might: a) reveal a source whose identity is to be protected (e.g., victim friend or sibling); and b) be required for corroboration of an admission against interest if the suspect later confesses.

Consider the following hypothetical interview, and subsequent interrogation, based upon an actual case history.

The body of Linda’s 9-year-old daughter, Valerie, was found stabbed and dismembered near her home. Forensic DNA analysis indicated that Valerie had been sexually assaulted by more than one male immediately prior to her death and that she had likely been similarly assaulted on multiple prior occasions. Since Linda was known to have been at work at the projected time of Valerie’s death, Linda was not suspected of having killed her daughter.

Through interviews of Valerie’s friends and her 8-year-old brother, it was believed that Linda may have repeatedly trafficked Valerie for sexual services. Sometimes the incidents occurred at the family home, while other incidents occurred at pre-arranged locations to which Linda would drop off her daughter. The portion of Linda’s interview that deals with her potential involvement in trafficking her daughter is introduced as follows.

“Linda, I’ve been talking with you for some time now about this tragic situation with Valerie. But there’s an additional element to this situation that I have to cover with you, and it’s really gotten my attention. There’s some evidence emerging indicating that Valerie had been used for sex with different men on several occasions. I have to follow-up on how that possibly might have happened. In the coming days and weeks I’m going to be working very hard on sorting that out. If, Linda, you at any time, and for whatever reason, introduced Valerie to men who showed some interest in her sexually, then my investigation will ultimately show that. On the other hand, if you never arranged any meetings with others to have sex with Valerie, my investigation is going to fully clear you on that point. But before we go any further, Linda, I have to ask you: did you ever arrange for Valerie to have sex with anyone, whether an adult or child, man or woman?”

The investigator should listen carefully to Linda’s choice of words in her response, and should equally carefully observe Linda’s precise demeanor as she replies. Both the substance of Linda’s words and her verbal, nonverbal, and paralinguistic behaviors will reveal either consciousness of guilt or strength of conviction in the truthfulness of her denial.

Thereafter, the interviewer should discuss with Linda any relevant evidence that does not compromise the integrity of the investigation, the identity of confidential informants, or the ability to validate a subsequent admission against interest. In this case, the interviewer may proceed as follows.

“Linda, I’ve spoken of the fact that there’s some emerging evidence of prior sexual activity with Valerie. I can’t give you all the details, but suffice it to say that what we know raises some tough questions. As our investigation evolves, we’ll be looking at security camera footage from local streets, businesses, and private homes. Would any of those videos show you dropping Valerie off at places you haven’t told me about to meet strangers?”

“We’re also going to be talking with many others, including people who might have an opportunity to see late night arrivals of men at your home who don’t belong there. Would any of those people also say that they saw you at home, with Valerie, when those men arrived or left your house?”

Once again, Linda’s choice of words, bearing, and demeanor in response to such evidence-based questions as well as to all behavior provoking questions of the Reid Behavior Analysis Interview will assist an interviewer assess Linda’s credibility. A tactful strategy, even amidst explosive inquiries, will preserve rapport and maintain open communication as the investigation ebbs toward the interrogation of an untruthful human trafficker. In Linda’s case, it did.

When the evidence, including the investigative interview, objectively weighs toward a reasonable belief that a suspected parental trafficker is deceptive, then an accusatory interrogation is appropriate. The strategy may include a direct approach combined with persuasive arguments that morally or psychologically (never legally) rationalize or justify the trafficker’s conduct. Interrogation should be initiated with a non-judgmental, yet clear statement of the suspect’s involvement followed by a transition into motive-based arguments which allow an offender to preserve self-respect while admitting the truth.

Staying with Linda’s example, an interrogation may be initiated and developed along the following abbreviated concepts.

“Linda, the results of our investigation clearly indicate that on several occasions you introduced Valerie to others for the purpose of having sex with them. It’s no longer a question of whether you did this, the only issue remaining is why this kind of thing happened and what caused you to use your daughter for this purpose.

“As a parent myself, I know that raising children is not easy. I also know it’s even harder for a single parent like you who’s trying her best to hold down a job and provide for not one, but two kids, all on her own. But you’re at an intersection in your life, Linda, to decide whether to honor your daughter by telling the truth and explaining why circumstances got so bad that this happened…., or to continue to live a lie. Here’s your moment of opportunity to show that you really care about Valerie, and that the pressures of being a parent under impossible circumstances – all alone – just caused you to do something you otherwise never would have done.

“If you needed some extra money to support your children, and if the only way you could raise that kind of cash was to provide Valerie to other men, then that’s just a bad mistake in your judgment. You and I both know that it was wrong, there’s no point in saying anything other than that it was wrong. But your reason for doing so is understandable. You were desperate…., not just for yourself but for your son and for your daughter’s financial needs. There was nobody else there to help you, so you did what you thought you had to do. If that’s the reason why you did what you did, then let’s get your side of the story told so that nobody misinterprets your intentions. Your silence in the face of all the evidence can easily lead people to believe that you didn’t care at all about Valerie and that you were just using her for your own profit. Don’t put yourself in that position. Don’t allow others to define who you are.

“Like I said, Linda, you’re at an intersection in your life. You have to make a decision about which path at that intersection you’re going to take. You can desecrate the sacrifices that Valerie made for her family by continuing to lie about what you arranged for her to do with these men. Or you can build her legacy, and at the same time preserve your own integrity and show the world that you really loved Valerie, by telling the truth about why it all had to be done. You offered Valerie to men in exchange for money so that you both, together, could support your family, didn’t you?”

The opening statement to Linda at the outset of the interrogation is direct and accusatory, but it is not abusive or disrespectful. Instead, it’s a forthright disclosure of the interviewer’s genuine belief about the case evidence. Linda knows where she stands, and there’s no misdirection being undertaken by the investigator. The persuasive argument, or theme, that ensues will allow Linda to tell the truth while “saving face” despite the horrific nature of her crime. Note that in no way has the interrogator threatened Linda, promised leniency, or mitigated the legal consequences of her actions. To reinforce the latter point, it’s explicitly stated within the narrative that what Linda had done was wrong.

This parental example is just one among many of the interviewing and interrogation strategies that are applicable to human trafficking cases. For a broad discussion of additional ideas and suggestions that comprehensively address considerations for interviewing/interrogation of human trafficking victims, witnesses, informants, transporters, recruiters, and traffickers, please take the time to review John E. Reid & Associates’ video training program entitled “The Reid Technique for Human Trafficking Investigations” which can be obtained at the following link:

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