How Should Truth Seeking and Documentation Efforts Engage Young People?


“We tend to think of memories the way we do files on our computers,” Valerie Waters says. “We click a file, we go here, we go there, and boom: all the information appears. But remembering is an active process. It is much more akin to acting out a play that we have not rehearsed for years.”

Waters is a specialist in traumatic memory and how to talk about traumatic events with children. She believes that societies seeking to grapple with the past have much to gain by speaking with young people about their experiences and ideas more effectively. But by the same token, they have a responsibility to gather young people’s statements in a way that both protects and respects them.

To help them do so, Waters authored a new ICTJ guide, “Listening to Young Voices: A Guide to Interviewing Children and Young People in Truth Seeking and Documentation Efforts,” which provides clear protocols for those working on truth seeking and documentation efforts to engage young people. The guide is already being used on the ground by those working with youth in Colombia and Syria, and is designed to be used in contexts around the world. ICTJ’s Virginie Ladisch, head of our Children and Youth program, sat down with Waters to discuss the guide and clear up common misconceptions about eliciting statements from young people.

The tool is a tremendous resource that is already in use by activists from Syria and beyond, but it actually got its start in Cote d’Ivoire when we were working together to support the truth commission there. Can you tell us about how this all got started?

Valerie Waters: We began to work with the Commission for Dialogue, Truth and Reconciliation (CDVR) in Cote d’Ivoire and were entering the process at kind of an auspicious time, before they had really decided on their concrete strategy for taking statements from children. And we took a step back and thought: “If we could do this in the perfect way, what would that be?” We were entering the process early enough to construct it according to what our ideal vision might be.

We tend to think of transitional justice as being this very separate field, but there is a lot that we can learn from research in parallel areas. I found this huge wealth of information around interviewing children, particularly in the aftermath of sexual abuse in investigations into crimes in the United States. There had been so much expertise poured into this area both in terms of how to collect accurate information from children, but also how to safeguard children’s wellbeing. I spent a few weeks pulling together as many resources as I could find, trying to find what would be applicable in truth-seeking processes. Then we had the chance to receive input on mental health and psychosocial support aspects from experts working with children in complex emergencies. That’s how we came up with our proposal for Child Statement Collection that we offered to the CDVR.

It turned out that the research and the work that we put into that first process had been quite useful for other countries and for other truth-seeking initiatives around the world, and so we started to explore more ways to extract it from the Ivorian-specific focus and create something that was more generally applicable, something that could serve as a kind of starting point for other organizations.

Since leaving ICTJ you did some field work as a clinician. In this second phase, when we decided to revise this guide to a more general audience, how did your clinical work shape the recommendations in the guide?

Valerie: It helped me gain a deeper understanding of the fundamental concepts of engaging with children. For example, the use of the funnel technique – that is, starting with the broadest, most open-ended questions before gradually narrowing – is something that we propose and outline in the tool. Open-ended questions are particularly important for children who have had a traumatic experience because of the way that trauma is processed in the brain and because of the way that memories of traumatic incidents are stored.

Can you say more about that?

Valerie: Memory is akin to acting out a play that we have not rehearsed for years. You know: “I think that this set piece goes here, and I think that these are the characters and this is what their costumes look like.” As you get into it you start to become more confident and more details come back and the picture becomes clearer.

When we ask closed-ended questions – like “was this person’s shirt red” – we are inserting information that the person remembering doesn’t have ready access to, and we have the chance to actually change their memory. They are opening up this room in their minds and we are putting things in that were not necessarily there before.

Open-ended questions really give the child ownership of the process of remembering. It facilitates the accuracy of the information received while also protecting the child, in that if there are things they’re deliberately not accessing for their own psychological safety, then they maintain the ability to make decisions about what enters into this frame.

You mention this relationship between accuracy and safety. Can you expand on what this dynamic means for taking statements from children in truth-seeking context, and how that differs from, say, a typical police investigation?

Waters: We see those twin goals are very much aligned throughout most of forensic interviewing and the investigations conducted by truth-seeking bodies. Where we ran into a divergence is around the question of truth induction. Truth induction is eliciting a promise from the child that the information that they give will be true. In an individual criminal prosecution, this is shown to increase the reliability of the statements given by the child. It has that benefit, which is weighed against the risk that it decreases the rapport between the interviewer and the child. It might make the child feel accused.

My instinct is that we would not get as much of the benefit in truth-seeking processes. Children who come forward in our contexts are not being compelled by a subpoena, they are coming forward voluntarily. So presumably any child who is being coerced not to tell the truth, any child who doesn’t feel safe to tell the truth, is probably not volunteering him or herself for the process to begin with. That means the likelihood of a truth induction increasing the accuracy of the statement is extremely low.

And then of course there is the risk. Truth commissions are often happening in an atmosphere of distrust within society, and it is difficult to create a space safe enough for children to give these stories. The process of the statement collection can become very strongly linked with the incident itself when the child goes to recall it years later.

Because of this connection, statement taking does have the capacity to be a healing process. But for it to fill that role, it must be a positive process in which children feel empowered, in which they were able to tell their story and be heard. That can in some ways mitigate the negative feelings associated with the initial incident. On the contrary, if they feel that someone is accusing them of lying or if they feel unsafe, that can worsen the psychological impact of the initial incident. Therefore, we decided to depart from the forensic literature and eliminate the element of truth induction.

The guide places a heavy emphasis on the importance of a psychosocial worker. In some of the places where we have begun to use this methodology, we have encountered resistance to that idea. It’s a point we routinely have to emphasize. Can you talk about why that role is so critical?

Valerie: We have to depart from conceiving of statement taking as a discrete moment of collecting the child’s story and instead start to think of it as a process that takes place over weeks or even months. In order for that to happen, there needs to be a stable reference point for the child. Someone who the child has a relationship with or easy access to, who can explain things in a way that the child understands and who can follow up with the child after the statement taking. They must remember that the statement taking is likely to become very intertwined with the memory of the actual violation that the truth commission is investigating and ensure the safety prior to, during, and after the statement taking.

There was a message from a child who participated in statement-taking in Liberia, who said: “I wish that I had never given my statement.” She thought she would receive some sort of compensation and she felt very betrayed and taken advantage of. That’s exactly the kind of secondary victimization that we’re seeking to avoid.

The statement taker’s role is very much focused on content and not necessarily about building relationships in the community, and so we need someone whose role is to guide the child and the family through the process. The natural type of profession to fill that role is a psychosocial worker. People trained with that lens can build relationships, improve the quality of statements, and help people feel safe and heard.

You spoke earlier about the ideal versus the reality; a constant struggle in our work. In some contexts, there are not a plethora of psychosocial workers. What advice do you have for those working in contexts where there are few psychosocial workers?

Valerie: You still need a person who is external to the statement taking process and to the family to support the child through the statement collection. That said, this person can be of any profession as long as they have some core capacities. They must have the ability to communicate with children and they must occupy a position within the community that allows them to intervene if there is a danger to the child’s safety that is disclosed during the statement-taking process. That person could be a teacher, it could be a nurse, it could be a religious or community leader or a midwife. Anyone who is respected within the community and has these skills and is invested in seeing children through this process.

The guide recommends that the child offer their statement without the presence of the psychosocial worker, but only with the statement taker. Why is that?

Valerie: The psychosocial support worker has an ongoing relationship with the child and their community, so the child may also be more willing to divulge something to an anonymous statement taker that they might not be ready to say to the psychosocial worker who lives three doors down and has a relationship with their family. It is about giving the child as much space as possible to use the statement taking process in the way that is most meaningful to them, and then following the child’s lead in terms of what sort of support they would want.

You also included a recommended question about how the child understands violence. Why is that important?

Valerie: This concept was first introduced to me by a child protection work in Kenya. The example that he used was how some children might refer to an instance of abuse by saying “men did bad manners to me.” Children have their own vocabulary for how they describe what has happened to them, and “bad manners” could mean anything from pushing to physical or sexual assault.

In truth-seeking, we are not teaching seven year olds new vocabulary to describe violations. That process belongs to clinicians. For our purposes, children just have the words that they have. It is incumbent upon the statement taker to gain an understanding of how the child describes and views violence. The statement-taking process must enable the statement taker to understand what the child means, and to not assume that “bad manners” simply means “rude.”

The guide has already been distributed to civil society groups that are working towards justice for victims of conflict in Syria. In the workshop we did with Syrian activists who are documenting attacks on schools, one of the participants was surprised by the idea of having the child speak first and felt this guide needed to be adapted to different cultures. What is your response to that?

Valerie: On the question of adaptation to the culture, I say absolutely yes it needs to be adapted, but adaptation on the part of the practitioners on how to adjust the guide, not on sacrificing the child-centric recommendations of the guide. In a culture in which it is particularly abnormal for a child to speak freely or first in a group of adults, practitioners are going to have to do a lot more work for a child to speak comfortably. But that is what the organization is there to do. They are there to listen to children. Establishing a dynamic in which the child’s input is sought first and the child is asked to give their ideas and their assent is crucial, particularly in a culture where it is not the norm. We cannot expect children to go from respectful silence in the presence of adults to giving long detailed narratives to an adult stranger without the opportunity to practice this shift.

Rather than doing away with approach of soliciting the child’s input first in cultures where that is not the norm, I would encourage organizations to think about how they are going to have to start even earlier to set up this atmosphere in which the child is accustomed to giving their honest ideas and relating their honest experiences.

Creating that atmosphere is all about transparency. It’s about clarifying the reasons for approaching children first, and the reasons for operating in a way that may be contradictory to cultural norms. Practitioners must explain why they are doing what they are doing, and how it serves the goals of the parents who want their child to give a statement. Adhering to a child-centric process does not mean neglecting all the protective layers of family and community which surround the child. Rather, it requires organizations to work collaboratively with the child’s support systems to build a process which centers the child.