Child forensic interviews boost courtroom success

NORTHEAST WISCONSIN – Taking the stand in a courtroom to talk about alleged child abuse isn’t always easy for kids.

“It can be very difficult. They’re scared. You can tell that they oftentimes don’t want to look at their accuser, or excuse me, their perpetrator,” says Brown County District Attorney, David Lasee.

Case in point: In 2010, Outagamie County prosecutors accused Jamie Sames of touching a girl outside a Target store.

Giving what some may consider graphic testimony sparked emotions for this 13-year-old sexual abuse victim.

She was responding to questions from district attorney Carrie Schneider.

Schneider: “What did he ask or tell you next?”
Victim: “To pull down my pants.”
Schneider: “Did he say why he needed you to pull down your pants?”
Victim: “He needed to search me for more stolen items.”

As part of a plea deal, a judge convicted Sames of child enticement.

A law passed one year later would have allowed the girl to offer a videotaped interview rather than testify in a courtroom.

Using recorded interviews as evidence in place of testimony is not new, but it’s become more common in recent years.

“It’s like reliving it every time you have to tell it again,” said Willow Tree Child Advocacy Center director, Susan Lockwood.

Lockwood says the recorded interviews provide key evidence in court and minimize trauma to a suspected victim.

The Green Bay non-profit opened in 2011. The center averages 25 child forensic interviews a month.

Lockwood says it’s a child-friendly, yet sterile environment to keep kids focused.

While the interview is taking place in one room, a multi-disciplinary team typically made up of a social worker, a police officer and a prosecutor can watch it and listen to it from an observation room.

“Rather than the child having to go a lot of different places and tell their story over and over again. They come to one place and the team comes here,” Lockwood said.

Brown County District Attorney David Lasee says the forensic interviews, which follow scientifically tested methods, have made a significant impact on the criminal justice system.

“The evidence that we receive in the form of that video is often very powerful and can induce defendants to enter a plea in the case because they know that the information is solid and they’re able to view the video,” said Lasee.

Lasee says the number of felony child sexual assault cases in Brown County has remained relatively steady from 2011 to 2013 at between 55 to 65 cases charged each year. The vast majority ended in plea deals.

“That’s a good thing because obviously it’s very difficult for a child to take the stand and testify, particularly against a family member or a loved one,” Lasee said.

One defense attorney we spoke with has another view.

“I would prefer that the witness take the stand and say what happened,” said Jeffrey Cano, an attorney with the State Public Defender’s Office in Green Bay.

Cano says no one is trying to traumatize a child, but he feels recorded interviews pose a threat to openness and transparency.

“There’s always a dangerousness that those are staged. There may be a best interest from the people that are interviewing. Obviously they want to get a conviction, so they’re already going in with a mindset many times, or a bias I would say, to elicit the information which would convict somebody,” Cano said.

Lockwood says the center follows a strict protocol in the interview room.

“You’re making sure that that child knows the difference between the truth and a lie, they make a promise to tell the truth. And then through open ended questions, that child discloses what they saw, what they heard, what they felt,” Lockwood said.

While a recorded child forensic interview is allowed as evidence in court for a preliminary hearing and jury trial, it is possible the child may still be called to the stand by the defense for further questioning in the event of a trial.

“As a court system, I think we’re looking for fundamental fairness and the right to cross examination is fundamental,” Cano said.

Lockwood says even if child victims and their families don’t get the outcome they want, she hopes the center’s work to make the criminal justice process a better experience helps them heal.

Green Bay’s Child Advocacy Center relies on grants and donations for funding.

It’s one of more than 750 child advocacy centers across the country.

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