Victim interviews serve critical role in prosecutions

Last updated: April 10. 2014 5:52PM - 1228 Views
By Emily Jarrett ejarrett@civitasmedia.com

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Editor’s note: This is the second story in a series about Child Safe of Central Missouri Inc., an advocacy agency that coordinates the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases. The victims who spoke to the Democrat for this story asked only their first names be used.

A few days after disclosing to her mother that she had been sexually abused by her step-uncle, Marie, 13-years-old at the time, was scheduled for a forensic interview at Child Safe.

These interviews are the bulk of what the agency does in helping investigations into child abuse. Forensic Interviewers Beth Jackman and Karen Starke conduct an interview, asking non-leading questions in the hopes of the child explaining what happened.

“Last year we interviewed 500 kids,” Jackman said. “Statistically though, only about 10 percent of our cases will make it to prosecution.”

Before the interview Jackman and Starke will meet with the team, made up of law enforcement and officials from the Children’s Division, to review the case and go over the allegations the child has made.

“I need to know what brought them to Child Safe, what they disclosed, but other than that I don’t really want to know the details,” Jackman said. “I don’t want any preconceived ideas about the case because it’s not my job to find out the truth of what happened. My job is to listen to the child’s story.”

Jackman, who has been with Child Safe since 2002, is trained in the Child First interview method, which is accepted protocol for forensic interviews.

“A typical interview starts with building a rapport and getting to know them a little,” she said. “Then I may ask questions about what they disclosed. Sometimes I’ll have them point out things on anatomical drawings. I always end on a non-abuse event, asking them something like ‘what are you going to do with the rest of your day?’ I want them to leave thinking about that if possible, not the abuse.”

The child’s reactions vary, Jackman said.

“Each child is different. Some kids cry, others talk to me (about abuse) like it’s the weather,” she said. “It also depends on how long this has been going on. If it’s a chronic abuse situation, this is normal for them. When you put a child in an adult situation, they don’t know how to handle it so they accommodate, it just becomes part of life.”

All interviews are video recorded which allows the investigative team, as well as the prosecuting attorney, and potentially a judge or jury, to view the interview and hear the child’s story in his or her own words. Office Manager Judi White handles the recording equipment and is charge of creating the DVDs that will be given to law enforcement.

“Right now we just have one camera that shows both the interviewer and the child,” White said. “We’re in the process of getting another movable camera so we can zoom in on the child or follow them around if they get up and move.”

The child’s expressions are important to note, White added, because sometimes body language tells the story better than words.

“It is heartbreaking, to listen and watch these stories,” she said. “But what we do is very important. We’re making a difference here, helping these children.”

Hoping for good disclosure

Pettis County Sheriff’s Office Det. Tollie Rowe met with Kathryn and Marie at Child Safe the day after she told her mother about the abuse.

“He was great, he took our statements and wrote down all the details and assured Marie that Mike wouldn’t get away with this,” Kathryn said. “After the interview when he was doing the investigation, he would call us even if he didn’t have anything new to report, just to let us know (the case) was still a priority, he was still working on it. Every step of the way he kept us informed.”

Both Rowe and Sedalia Police Department Detectives Stephanie Davis and Jill Green said Child Safe is an important part of putting together their investigations, particularly when it comes to interviewing children.

“We don’t want them to have to tell their story to 20 different people,” Davis said. “But, more than that, we don’t want to do that interview. I’m not trained in forensic interviews and asking non-leading questions. A child especially is susceptible to wanting to make adults happy by giving them the ‘right’ answers. Child Safe eliminates that.”

Once an interview time has been set, the detective on the case will watch in real time as the interview is being conducted. Jackman and Starke both wear an earpiece during the interview which allows law enforcement to ask for clarification on a point.

“Nothing that’s said in the interview room shocks them,” Green added. “We’ll be upstairs in tears just hearing these stories but they’re so great at their job, they treat everything so calmly.”

Once the interview is completed, a copy of the DVD is given to the investigators. Depending on the type of abuse and whether the abuser was a family member, officers may bring someone in for questioning right away.

“It depends on the situation,” Green said. “If the child gave us good disclosure, was able to detail what happened and how it happened, that’s helpful for us. Other times they don’t disclose during an interview and we can’t do much.”

“Arrests really depend on the case,” Rowe added. “If there’s no disclosure then I have no investigation. If there is the next step is us doing our best to corroborate the story. If (the child) tells us the name of their abuser I can take that and run with it.”

There are few child abuse confessions, Davis said, most abusers won’t admit to their crimes and many times a case can turn into “he said, she said.”

“It’s sad, especially if they’re disclosing something that happened years ago,” she said. “Even recent abuse, vaginal and anal injuries can heal in as little as two days. There have been times when an assault kit comes back normal for a child we know was sexually abused.”

‘I really thought I would kill him’

In Marie’s case, Rowe was able to use her interview as well as several follow up interviews to make a case against Uncle Mike. He was arrested about a month after Marie first told her mother about the abuse.

Not that it made the situation easier for her or her family.

“I could kill myself for not seeing the signs (that Marie was being abused),” Kathryn said. “I don’t care how great of a relationship you think you have with your child, they change when they’re being abused. I thought we had the best relationship that was very open. But I didn’t see the signs.”

The stress took its toll on Marie’s siblings as well. Her older brother was there the final day that Uncle Mike sexually abused her. Kathryn said Child Safe advocates were there with her when she told her son what had happened to his sister.

“He was so angry, he punched the walls,” Kathryn said. “He blamed himself because that day he left them alone when he went out.”

Kathryn was also dealing with her own anger.

“I really thought I was going to kill Mike with a rifle,” she said. “I would lay in bed at night, planning out how I would do it. My sons wanted to kill him. Thank God no one did anything crazy.”

After making an arrest for child abuse, law enforcement officials will turn the case over to the Pettis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Rowe, who admittedly is “a little possessive about my cases,” said the attorney has to work with the case that’s given to him.

“If he doesn’t believe it’s enough, I go back and see what else I can find to improve it. The goal is always for him to take it and makes formal charges,” he said. “Of course, causes never go as fast as you want them to.”

Throughout the process, Child Safe was like a rock, Kathryn said.

“The whole time and especially now, I keep thinking ‘what if I had lived in another town that didn’t have something like Child Safe?’” she said. “Who would have helped us, kept us informed about what was going on? Who would have made sure (Marie) got counseling and assisted us in the legal process? They were essential in helping us. I don’t know what I would have done without them.”

See tomorrow’s edition of the Democrat for the last story in this series, an examination of prosecutions of child abusers.

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