Trauma Informed Interviewing Techniques

A Toolkit for Attorneys and Other Professionals Working with Immigrant Children

As a result of the United States’ Zero Tolerance Policy, thousands of children were separated from their caregivers and detained in substandard conditions upon arriving to seek asylum in the US. Forced separation from a primary caregiver, at any age, is considered a major trauma with lasting negative health effects for children and their families.

Through the generosity of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, experts in trauma-informed care from the Stanford Center for Health Education and the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) were given the opportunity to support the work of immigration attorneys who visit with and hear directly from these children.  Below is the toolkit we created.

About the Project

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine

Hundreds of lawyers and physicians have volunteered their services to the victims of family separation but the resources available to support these professionals are scarce and often inaccessible to busy professionals in need of practical advice and emotional support.
Through a series of short video interviews with lawyers and physicians who have years of experience working with separated families, we are creating a compact “toolkit” to offer these professionals efficiently delivered, just-in-time support that will leave them with the strategies and coping skills they need to do this heroic humanitarian work.
The toolkit is openly available below for lawyers and physicians who may be considering volunteer work of this nature. It will also be disseminated through multiple professional and charitable organizations working with these professional volunteers.
We are committed to understanding the effectiveness of all our health education interventions. We will collect survey feedback and conduct in-depth focus group sessions with learners to examine how our trauma-informed training content can better prepare those on the front lines working to protect vulnerable children.
Project Collaborators
This project was made possible through a collaboration between faculty at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, Stanford University and highly experienced attorneys practicing in this field. We have relied heavily on the guidance of these faculty and professionals, many of whom have traveled to border towns to take part in this effort: Marsha Griffin MD, Paul Wise MD, MPH, Ryan Matlow PhD, Hope Frye ESQ, Nancy Ewen Wang MD, Victor Carrion MD, Fernando Mendoza, MD, MPH, Jodi Goodwin ESQ, Lisa Chamberlain MD and others.

Using the Toolkit

child drawing during interview

This toolkit consists of a 30 minute video series, a written guide, a set of reflection questions, and links to further resources. These materials will provide introductory information to assist with the child interview process. The recommendations are guided by best practices for working with children with histories of trauma exposure, and they can be adapted to support interactions with children in a range of contexts.

A primary goal while conducting interviews with immigrant children is to avoid re-traumatizating children.  Even in a short interview, a trauma-informed approach is crucial to safeguarding a child’s health. Using these strategies will help interviewers gather accurate information, while avoiding additional trauma for both the child and the interviewer. We strongly recommend that interviewers obtain further training from a mental health professional with experience in trauma and development.

Video Series

Introduction to the Series

This video content is based on two fundamental observations: First, that using a trauma-sensitive approach will help you do your job better by making it more likely that children will share their stories with you. Second, using this approach will help ensure that you don’t do damage—it will make it less likely that the interview itself will exacerbate the traumatic impact of the experiences that these children have had.

Establishing Connections with a Child

While conducting immigration-related interviews, it’s crucial to take measures to avoid re-traumatizing children and youth who have been through difficult experiences. Here are some tips and techniques to help interviewers set the stage for a trauma-informed interaction. Your creativity in using the strategies and approaches in this video can make a huge difference, even in a short interaction with a child.

For more information on interviewing children and youth exposed to trauma, see our guide below and explore the following links from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN):

Supporting the Emotional Needs of Young Children

The trauma of forced family separation can have lasting effects on a young child, ranging from overwhelming emotions to developmental regression. It’s likely these children will need your support navigating the interview process.

For more information on interviewing young children who’ve experienced traumatic events, see our guide below and explore the following links:

Supporting the Emotional Needs of Adolescents

Adolescents passing through the US immigration system exhibit incredible strength and resilience, but they also face multiple challenges—many have fled violence and threats to their lives to face indefinite detention in the US. Without support, these experiences can severely compromise their mental health.

For more information evaluating the mental health needs of immigrant youth, see our guide below and explore the following links:

Proactive Self Care for Attorneys

Anyone working to support immigrant children and families is at risk of experiencing secondary stress, an often overlooked consequence of working with people who have experienced trauma. Signs of secondary stress resemble PTSD: sadness or irritability; intrusive thoughts and feelings; anxiety and hypervigilance; difficulty tolerating information related to the trauma; feelings of overwhelm; fatigue; and/or difficulty empathizing with others. It’s important to take care of your own mental health while you advocate for others.


For more information on secondary traumatic stress and vicarious traumatization,  see our guide below and explore the following links:


Downloadable Materials for Reflection and Application

These videos provide a general overview of practice recommendations and trauma-sensitive approaches to the interview process. We recommend supplementing the videos with the downloadable guide and reflection prompts to facilitate further reflection and application to your specific context.

Additional Resources and Recommendations

Resources on Secondary Stress and Vicarious Trauma

*Please note that many of these resources and recommendations were developed for purposes of child forensic interviewing, juvenile defense, and/or human trafficking interviews.  Therefore, the specific context and goals of this content may not appropriately fit for attorneys conducting interviews with children within the context of immigration proceedings and detention.  However, the following materials can provide helpful information on general background knowledge and practice recommendations.

We recognize that the nature of this content is inherently distressing. If you feel that you need support, we encourage you to reach out to colleagues and health professionals around you – and consider watching the video in this series about Self Care. Additionally, we recognize that some professionals and volunteers may not be trained in conducting mental health assessments, and this can feel like a daunting responsibility. You may wish to prepare protocols and contacts, both within a given facility and outside the facility, in the event of a medical or mental health emergency, as the appropriate crisis response may very well be outside of your scope and capacity. We encourage you to seek advice and support from medical professionals working in your area, and use your judgement in ensuring that the best possible care is provided.