A Conversation with Ashleigh Shea: Forensic Interviewing at the CAC

Ashleigh started her collegiate career in nursing knowing that she wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. Realizing that nursing was not the right path to achieving her altruistic goals, she transitioned to social work. Ashleigh began her journey at the CAC as a graduate level intern in 2014 where she was exposed to forensic interviewing for the first time.  Ashleigh remembers that she “was intrigued by the role, but also very intimidated.”

Upon completion of her full year as a graduate intern, she was hired as a therapist for the CAC, but quickly took on the role of a forensic interviewer. Forensic interviewing instantly appealed to Ashleigh: “I loved that the forensic interviewer was the first person to sit with the child and provide the platform for them to share their story for the first time. I grew up in a family surrounded by law enforcement, so I’ve developed a sort of natural ability to look at different situations from as investigative standpoint.” Ashleigh’s passion and skills have been serving our community through the CAC for a total of seven years.

What is Forensic Interviewing? How does it work at the CAC?

A forensic interviewer is specially trained in speaking with children in a way that is developmentally appropriate, unbiased, non-leading, and non-suggestive. Forensic interviewers work as a part of a larger multidisciplinary team of professionals in the investigation, intervention, and treatment of child sexual abuse, child physical abuse, and other crimes involving children.

According to Ashleigh, “being a forensic interviewer for the CAC is a tough job to describe because everyday can look so different. I am responsible for conducting forensic interviews of children who are involved in some kind of criminal investigation. My job is to obtain a statement from the child witness. This is done in a room that’s designed to be comfortable for the child, but not distracting. It’s just the child and I in the interview room, but the assigned investigators and multidisciplinary team (MDT) members can observe from a separate office space. Essentially, I work as part of a larger MDT of professionals – including law enforcement, Children’s Protective Services, prosecutors, advocates, a medical team, mental health clinicians, and others.”

Forensic interviewers wear an earpiece during every interview so members of the MDT that need specific information from the interviewee can feed and communicate questions and other information to Ashleigh. All forensic interviews are video, and audio recorded.

“I also testify in court, supervise CAC staff and interns, facilitate MDT meetings, provide trainings for our team and area professionals, and participate in an ongoing peer review.” Being a forensic interviewer was only one part of Ashleigh’s legacy with the CAC.

A Double-Edged Sword

Working at the CAC is not an easy, but it is a highly rewarding place to work. Coming face-to-face with children, sometimes not even a year old, that have faced horrible sexual abuse isn’t easy to carry for our staff. But, knowing that we are working each day to prevent, advocate, and investigate on children’s behalf, makes the hard days at work worth it.

“Providing a safe space for children to share their stories, working as part of a larger team, working to find the truth and obtain justice, making a difference in the community, following children throughout their healing journey to see resilience firsthand, and challenging myself in each interview to ensure I am forensically sound, child-centered, and developmentally appropriate are some of my favorite parts of being a forensic interviewer. My not so favorite parts are hearing some of the extremely painful and difficult experiences that children in our community have encountered, witnessing first-hand trauma that an entire family is experiencing, knowing that my piece is limited [meaning that I cannot reassure the child, tell them whether or not I believe them or over-extend myself from simply obtaining their statement], and when things fall short. Limitations in our criminal justice system prevent children from obtaining justice they had hoped for.”

It is not unusual for someone that works with trauma every day to develop secondhand trauma, also known as vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma can occur when an individual is frequently exposed to difficult and disturbing images and stories. While our clients are recipients of direct trauma exposure, our staff experiences indirect trauma exposure. Physiologically and psychologically, indirect and direct trauma present themselves in very similar ways. Therefore, staff must develop coping mechanisms and allocate appropriate time to heal and process any indirect trauma they may experience to continue bringing their full selves to the CAC each day.

“Separating work from home will always be a journey. When I first began working at the CAC, I somehow thought I was immune to vicarious and secondary trauma. That quickly changed. I’m so grateful for a supervisor who is so passionate and knowledgeable about the topic. I am constantly learning new ways to take care of myself and working to recognize different things that cause me to struggle more than others. I am fortunate that the majority of my family and friends are in ‘helping’ professions, whether that be law enforcement, social work, or the medical field. We have a sort of patience and understanding with each other that people outside of this field don’t quite understand.”

Am I a good fit for Forensic Interviewing?

Anyone can receive the education and training to become a forensic interviewer, but Ashleigh believes that it is an inherent skillset that you either have or you don’t: “Forensic interviewing is a way of thinking, seeking things different and communicating. While the protocol can be trained to anyone, there are also certain parts of interviewing that simply cannot be taught.”

According to Ashleigh, there are some personalities, temperaments, and skills better suited for the job. If you fit these descriptors, perhaps forensic interviewing could be for you!

  • Warm, engaging, comfortable, and confident.
  • Accountable, intentional with words and actions.
  • Enjoying the chaos of unpredictability and doing well under pressure.
  • Resilience, with a well-established self-care routine.
  • Inquisitive and outside-the-box thinking.
  • Ability to work on larger teams.
  • Challenging people in a professional, respectful way, when necessary, and respecting each person’s role.

Future Plans and Memories

There is no doubt that Ashleigh has an impact on everyone she meets. She leaves the Center passionate about enhancing equity and inclusiveness for all: “My hope for the CAC is that it continues to be a safe place for all who come here… [I also] hope MDT continues to function as a cohesive unit. I’ve seen many teams across the country struggle to work together, which ultimately only hurts the families we serve. I hope the level of respect, professionalism, and collaboration that we have all achieved continues to grow.”

Ashleigh leaves us for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a Child and Adolescent Forensic Interviewer for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. While we will miss her smiling face and passion for our mission, we wish her the best of luck on her new journey. At the very least, we know that Ashleigh will miss us just as much as we miss her:

“I will miss so many things, but most importantly the people. The CAC employs some of the most incredible people I have ever met. Ottawa County is filled with so many passionate and dedicated professionals. I have absolutely loved building relationships with our team.”

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