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The Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI)

Jan - Feb 2019 (click here for normal version)

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Research has demonstrated that brain functions and memory of victims of trauma, such as a sexual assault, are significantly affected by the event, and as a result, their behavior and statements may not follow the traditional indications of credibility assessments. For example, oftentimes trauma victims do not remember events in a linear, chronological order or remember many of the secondary details. Their memories are focused on those details that presented the most significant threat to their well being at the time of the incident such as the weapon the perpetrator was holding versus the color of the vehicle he was driving. The following is a summary of the key elements of the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI).

The FETI was developed by Russell Strand with the US Army Military Police School. It combines the best of child forensic interviewing techniques (open-ended questions, non-leading questions, avoiding influencing the interview subject, etc.) along with the principles of critical incident stress debriefings (discussing the emotional and physical impact of the event and the repercussions) and neurobiology research to obtain not just the who, what, when, why, where and how of the incident, but also the three dimensional experiential aspect of the crime. This process solicits and documents critical forensic physiological evidence.

Before discussing the content of the FETI, here is some general background information on memory, brain functions and the effect of trauma. Trauma is a life changing, world view changing event it changes our perspective. The assault experience is remembered in fragments and infused with intense emotion and recollections of sensations such as tastes, smells and sounds.

Memory is comprised of electricity, chemicals, vibrations and frequencies. It is not a file cabinet where you can just look something up. Parts of the memory include the
Cognitive memory (names, places, phone numbers, language, who, what, when, where information); Muscle memory (riding a bike, typing, dancing, playing an instrument);
Emotional-Affect memory (grief, fear, joy, anger); and, State memory (state of being -violence, stress).

The structure of the brain includes the Prefrontal Cortex that part of the brain that allows control of such activities as:

  • choosing where to focus our attention and thoughts
  • holding thoughts, memories and other information in mind so the individual can imagine alternatives to their present and past
  • focusing inside and reflecting on the individual s feelings, thoughts and actions
  • inhibiting habits and automatic responses
  • regulating emotions, including how strong they are, how long they last and if and how they are expressed

In non-traumatic situations our actions are chosen, deliberate, and mostly the result of conscious awareness. However, during a traumatic event a sexual assault, a serious traffic accident, a domestic assault, etc., when the prefrontal cortex is under stress it becomes highly impaired, and old, primitive brain structures take control, such as the Amygdala, which functions as a radar that is always on and is designed to detect threats. During a traumatic event chemicals start to flow as the alarm stage heightens which can result in a freeze, flight or fight response.

Memory is a cluster of little pieces that are in there of sounds, emotions, smells, images, body sensations, behaviors, thoughts and feelings they are all in the memory but they are jumbled all around they are not set in a sequential order. The things that are more strongly encoded in the memory are those things that were seen by the subject as the most significant threats to their well-being. Consequently, the traditional line of questioning, Please tell me everything that happened from the beginning to the end is not appropriate in the initial interview of the trauma victim, but rather a question that solicits from them their experience of the event is more appropriate.

During the FETI it is imperative that the investigator is genuinely empathetic understanding of the victim s feelings. Victims should not be treated as witnesses to their own crime witnessing an event is completely different from experiencing the event. For example, witnessing a car accident is completely different from being in the car accident.

Here are the core elements/questions of the FETI interview:

  1. Acknowledge the subject s trauma/pain/difficult situation
  2. What are you able to tell me about your experience?
  3. Tell me more about . (the room; the person; etc.)
  4. What was your thought process during this experience?
  5. What are you able to remember about .. 5 senses
  6. What were your reactions to this experience
  7. What is the most difficult part of this experience for you?
  8. What if anything can t you forget about your experience?


With respect to item 2 above, the words able and experience are key they allow the subject to describe their strongest memories first without feeling the frustration of having to come up with an exact chronology of events.

With respect item 4 above, it is important not to put the victim on the defensive by asking questions such as, Why didn t you run? Why did you do that? Why didn t you do this or that? which all can cause the subject to close down because they may not be able to articulate the reason for their actions. It is easier for them to respond to a question like What were you thinking at this point? What was going through your mind when this happened?

With respect item 5 above, sensory information is oftentimes strongly encoded in the memory during traumatic events, so questions such as, When this happened what did it sound like? smell like? What did your body feel like? your arms? your torso? your head? How did that feel physically? emotionally?

Overall sensitivity and empathy are the keys to a successful victim interview. Be patient, thorough, don t stop asking open-ended questions until you can in some way experience what the victim has experienced. Give the victim time to process and work through the trauma.

Once the investigator has facilitated all that they can about the subject s experience, then they can attempt to clarify other information and details of the incident.

For more information on the FETI:

* A 1 hour and 33 minute webinar by Russell Strand on the FETI at:
https://vimeo.com/117832921

* A 34 minute presentation entitled: Neurobiology of Trauma by Dr. David Lisak at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=py0mVt2Z7nc

* A 23 minute presentation entitled: Sexual Assault: A trauma Informed Approach to Law Enforcement First Response Part I and Part II at:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnlXzD2pYSA and

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0Om695cHjg&pbjreload=10

* CertifiedFETI offers certification training in the Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview - https://www.certifiedfeti.com/training



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