Coming of Age: Investigations Involving Children

The other day I was having a discussion with two colleagues, Heidy Prestol and Taryn Smith of the UnScene Paranormal Team, about casework and ethics. This is a team I have recently come to respect due to their similar methods of investigation and their willingness to be truthful about research related to paranormal tools, investigations, and a variety of other related topics. During this conversation, I was surprised by a question I don’t get asked very often. “What are your thoughts on approaching cases that involve children?” While it’s something we have addressed within our own team and procedures, I don’t think that it’s something I have talked about publicly.

On average, of the residential cases, we take on, only about 3% involve children. But, it has come up often enough that the ethics surrounding children involvement with cases had to be discussed. To be clear many of the people we see at public events, ghost tours, and even some of our regular fan base, are kids between the ages of 10 – 15 years of age. For the most part, our stance on those situations is that we do our best to watch our mouths. When we first started, we could find ourselves foul-mouthed at times, especially when frightened at the moment. But, at the least, we’ve tried to tone down the F-bombs to a degree over the years. The jury is still out on if we are succeeding in that endeavor. In those settings, we find that we can talk with, too, and in front of kids in a way that focuses on the science and research aspects of what we do and shy away from the topic of demons and ghosts. It’s no different than the way we would approach an adult except that we may become more engaging as kids tend to ask better questions than the grown up’s in question. In general, we try not to influence any meta-level conversations about religion, death, or the negative aspects of the paranormal, as the events that are advertised as family friendly tend to be on the lighter side of the field; and resemble something more akin to a science fair than a discussion forum between investigators and clients.

But, barring those situations, we have a different approach to dealing with children involved in a case. While other groups may take a different approach to handle the situation, our procedures are put in place to keep two main things in mind.

  1. NTPI’s goal is to be an objective research group centered around supernatural, paranormal reports. In any case, no matter who the subjects are, we do not want to introduce any information or activities that could alter the environment or psychology of ANY subject before we have been able to conduct our investigation.

  1. We do not want to be responsible for the negative influences of a minor at any time during an investigation by inducing fear or raising questions about religion or death that the parents or legal guardians are not prepared to discuss with the child yet.

As researchers and public figures, we have an ethical responsibility to do no harm to the very clients we are trying to help. I’ve seen other high-profile investigators conduct amateur interviews with children in which they lead the conversation, ask about demonic activity, and ultimately leave a child afraid to sleep in their own room, all in the sake of trying to get good footage for their YouTube channel. This is not a practice I take kindly to, and I admonish anyone who I’ve seen do it. While there could be other approaches and variations that I would feel comfortable saying are ethical and acceptable and keeping in mind that there can always be exceptions to every rule depending on the situation, we follow a rigid set of guidelines when dealing with children as it pertains to our own casework and investigations.

Any client that we take on we ask that the children not be present at the location when we conduct the initial interviews, walks of the house, or physical investigation. It’s important to us that the children be away from the site rather than just tucked into a back room while we are working. While this may seem a bit extreme, there are multiple reasons for this. First and foremost, children are both crafty and curious. When I was a kid, and I wanted to know what I was getting for Christmas, I didn’t even have to leave my room. The air vent over my closet door connected directly to the air vent in my parent’s bedroom across the hall. And yes, I heard more than any child should ever hear coming from that room. From the standpoint of the subject matter, there is no precaution that can be taken to ensure that the kids don't hear something they shouldn’t. Depending on the case there may be the talk of the family’s beliefs about religion, death, and in some cases demonic activity. These are all conversations that I overheard at an impressionable age, and I can tell you that it absolutely contributed to a bias about how I thought about the world around me. In some of these cases, we may be talking about activity that specifically happened in the kid’s rooms, people who may have died prior to moving in, and other sensitive topics. Without first knowing the entire situation, we feel it is inappropriate for a child to be on site during this process even if the family is open with each other about such subjects. Adding a third party such as an investigator into the mix, spouting off ideas about what they think is going on, can easily add unintentional elements of fear and curiosity. And, if none of the activity being investigated has been experienced by the children, then it’s all the more reason to not include them into the mix. In addition to these aspects, we see it as a liability matter that we help protect ourselves from by not interacting with the children.

If we do find during the initial interactions and first physical investigation that we need to talk to the children about their experiences and possibly to observe them, things can become a bit tricky. Reasons we might decide that we cannot get around this aspect would be if the activity was mainly centered around and reported by the child, or if we found out that there was physical harm being reported to the kid. While we’re professional in what we do, it would be arguable if any of us were qualified to interview a child about anything. Luckily there are aspects of our group that give us a unique edge. Not only is one of our main field team members primary degree in psychology, and two others took it as part of their training in their respective fields. In addition, we also have access to a colleague who was a sexual assault nurse for over ten years. These tools are particularly important when interviewing a child about potentially scary things going on in their life, especially in cases where they might be getting harmed. (I’ll return to this in a moment.)

Our procedures dictate that a lead investigator and our psychology expert conduct the interview. We ask that only one parent or approved guardian be present during the process and they are not allowed to engage or volunteer information during the process outside of encouraging the child that it is okay to answer truthfully. We take great pains to ensure that we are not leading the conversation and only asking the most basic of questions about what is going on. The modus operandi of the interviewer is simply to ask questions and really listen to the answers. It is of the utmost importance during this process that we convey a sense of safety about the situation. If the child seems scared about the subject matter, but there is no indication of physical harm, we try to empower children by pointing out that whatever is happening it has not hurt them in any way. We try to instill the idea that we will either be able to find out that what they are experiencing is just “a creaky old house” or that if there is something going on, it’s merely just curious and they shouldn’t be afraid. We may engage in a bit of science education and try to entertain at the same time to maintain a light feeling. It’s not our place to discuss death, religion, or other controversial matters about the paranormal in a sense that we could answer with a sense of authority. It’s up to the interviewer to keep the conversations steered in safe directions both for the aspect of making the children feel comfortable and to protect ourselves from the lawsuits of angry parents claiming we traumatized their children.

But what is the kid is physically harmed? There is the rare case in which a child is bruised, scratched, pushed, or being terrorized. The claims have more red flags then we can morally ignore and liability aside, we make a maximum effort to check on the child. Due to circumstances, we tend to change gears slightly. Rather than a parent or in-house guardian, we ask that the child is allowed to pick an adult that they are comfortable with to supervise the interview. If the parent is comfortable with the setup we proceed as normal; however, because of the added level of harm, we are looking for more than just information about paranormal activity but any indication that someone might be harming the child. Should we suspect anything is going on at all, we conduct the investigations as normal as not to cause suspicion and put the child in danger. Meanwhile, the tapes of our interview, findings about the location, and testimony is then turned over to the proper authorities. Luckily this is not a situation that has ever come up, but it is one that should always be prepared for. At the end of the day, we’re pledging to help people, and some of the people in my team are parents.

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