How to work with reluctant interviewees

Emma Belton discusses interviewing families for evaluations in difficult contexts

It’s difficult to get service users with young families and busy lives to take part in an interview at the best of times. But it can be particularly challenging when they feel the service hasn’t helped them or, in some cases, made things worse.

To help professionals who are interviewing in a difficult context, I’m sharing my experience of evaluating the NSPCC’s Assessing the Risk: Protecting the Child (ARPC) service.

ARPC is an assessment service for men who pose a sexual risk to children. It’s a holistic programme involving an assessment of the man deemed to be a risk, the protective parent or carer and the child or children at risk.

The evaluation aimed to interview each of these 3 service users - but this was difficult to achieve in practice.


A stressful assessment

The assessment can be a stressful experience for the families involved. The men may be anxious about whether they’ll be able to have contact with the child or if they’ll be allowed to live in the family home again.

Protective parents or carers could be concerned about whether the child will become distressed by taking part in the assessment and what it means for their relationship with their partner.

During the assessment sessions, men and protective parents or carers are asked to talk in detail about their sexual behaviour; they may feel judged by assessors and perceive these sessions as difficult.

At the end of the assessment, families don’t always get the outcome they hoped for. Sometimes the decision is made that it’s not safe for the man to have contact with the child or, in some cases, children are removed.

This makes for a difficult context to ask people about taking part in research.

Changing the timing

Practitioners who carried out the assessment asked service users if they were willing to be contacted about taking part in interviews at the start of the assessment process and after it had finished.

Around half the assessed men and protective parents or carers agreed to be contacted.

But it was difficult for practitioners to have conversations about the evaluation in the last session when they had, perhaps, been giving the family difficult feedback.

The process was changed to give practitioners the option of having this conversation at the last assessment session before the assessment report, when recommendations were shared with families.

Why families didn’t consent to interviews

Feedback from the families who did not consent to evaluation and the practitioners who spoke to them, suggested many families just wanted to move on. They didn’t want to talk about the assessment again, particularly to a new person.

Others, particularly those who had a negative assessment outcome, were angry or upset: they weren’t going to help out by taking part in a voluntary interview.

Protective parents or carers were particularly concerned about their child being asked to take part in an interview, re-living their experience of assessment and speaking to another new person.

With such a low consent rate from protective parents or carers it wasn’t feasible to take this part of the evaluation forward. Instead, surveys were used with children which their protective parents or carers were less concerned about.

Changing the interview format

Even when families had agreed to be contacted about an interview it didn’t always mean an interview took place.

We lost around half the cases through attrition, either because:

    • contact details weren’t up to date
    • they changed their minds about doing an interview
    • or, more commonly, they agreed a date to be interviewed, but weren’t contactable on that day and couldn’t be contacted again.

For this reason, interviews were changed from face-to-face to telephone interviews.

Learning from interviews

When we did get interviews, the initial 5 minute conversation to explain the evaluation was crucial.

It also helped to reinforce that we weren’t from the assessment team and were really interested to hear both positive and negative views.

We informed them we didn’t have the details about their case and wouldn’t be talking about the reason they were referred for an assessment.

This helped us secure interviews with families who felt angry about the assessment process and didn’t think anyone would take notice of their feedback as well as those who were reluctant because they didn’t want to talk about the allegations again.

Flexibility and understanding

Interviewers also had to be flexible, calling service users back at different times of the day and evening to get hold of them.

A balance had to be achieved between being persistent with people who had genuinely forgotten about the interview or had busy lives and recognising that, for some people, a “no-show” was their way of saying they didn’t want to take part.

In the excitement of the possibility of getting an interview, it can be hard to know when to let go and stop pursuing someone: it was useful to ask colleagues for their view on these cases.

Successful evaluation

Although this was a challenging study, it did prove possible to get a diverse sample of interviews.

It took time, patience and persistence, but the detailed feedback we received was well worth the effort.

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