John, who is a salesperson, is married and has a 6 year-old daughter, SR. John’s marriage to Sarah has been shaky for the past six months, and they’ve contemplated divorce. John texted his best friend that he has proof of his wife committing infidelity. John hadn’t spent much time at home over the past half-year, and the time spent with SR has been sporadic. All of a sudden, one day after John returned home with SR from her soccer game, he decided to spend the night at said best friend’s house. Sarah found a note in their home with John’s handwriting scribbled on paper that alluded to her cheating on him.
As Sarah’s thought pattern and mind raced at the speed of light, she began to question SR: “Has your daddy bought you special gifts lately? Has he shown you extra special love by getting closer and closer to you? I know you told me you’ve been having nightmares and bed wetting issues lately, right? Remember, we talked about good touches, bad touches and secret touches? And, I wonder if those tickle games you used to play with him have become bad, private part touches?”
Sarah’s relentless leading, suggestive, and direct questions posed to SR triggered her explicit, conscious memory. SR affirmed, after listening to mother’s bevy of questions, by nodding her head, and then disclosing that her father had been touching her pee pee area over her underwear. Her mother proceeded to call her state’s child abuse hotline number, and an investigation ensued by Child Protective Services (CPS). John had been accused of the unthinkable.
He had been accused of child abuse, and the Government was summoned.
What Happens When You Are Accused of Child Abuse?
Child Victim Hearsay is the Rule, not the Exception
Make no mistake. Hearsay, or an out-of-court statement made for the truth of the matter, which, generally speaking, is legally inadmissible in Court, is accepted in a case due to Exceptions to the Hearsay Rule. One of those exceptions is the excited utterance from a child or disclosure of alleged sexual abuse. In a case like SR’s, CPS, most likely, will not recommend an ano-genital rape examination via colposcopy because the child made no disclosure of alleged sexual battery or penetration. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, only 5% of all child sexual abuse cases are positive for medical findings and trauma. The other 95% of all cases are ones of child victim hearsay, like SR’s. So, the child’s word or words is/are the evidence.
Next Stop…Child Advocacy Center (CAC) for a Forensic Interview
Arguendo, the seminal evidence in any case of alleged child victim hearsay is the outcome of the child’s forensic interview at the local Child Advocacy Center (CAC). The home base for the child advocacy center is in Huntsville, Alabama and their website is www.nationalcac.org. And, for SR, a 6 year-old pre-pubescent female child, typically an interview will last between 30 – 45 minutes. And the child forensic interviewer will first build rapport with SR and then go over with her truth from lie (and promise to tell the truth), good touches from bad touches from secret touches, body parts, and the index allegations.
The CAC interviewer must not pose leading, suggestive, and direct questions to SR so that the child answers of her own free volition, spontaneously. For example, “SR, can you tell me what happened? Tell me about that? Can you tell me more about that?” This invites SR to tap into her implicit and unconscious memory and try and recall gist details of her father, John, allegedly touching near her vulva area over or under her underwear. SR’s responses to said questions are supposed to contain an indicia of reliability and an inherent degree of trustworthiness in order for a Judge and/or Jury to find her credible.
It is incumbent upon the interviewer to avoid leading, suggestive, and direct questions. They must also avoid questions that vilify the person accused of child abuse (negative stereotype induction).
Interviewers must execute source monitoring with the victim to explore alternative hypotheses, and that possibly John, SR’s father, never in fact did sexually abuse his daughter. To conduct source monitoring, which is essential in order to avoid a possible source mis-attribution error, the child forensic interviewer should have conducted an interview with Sarah to learn about her initial interview with SR and the substance of the same. In addition, the interviewer should have communicated with John’s best friend and reviewed John’s timeline, if he typed one. Source monitoring is an essential tool for fact checking a case.
Telling is Not a Perfect Science
Memory is not a perfect videotape. It decays and fades with the passage of time. The CAC is supposed to take place within 3 days of SR’s outcry to her mother, Sarah. Why? Because kids do not possess good memory recall. Young kids are suggestible and impressionable. Words, thoughts, and ideas placed in their fragile sponge-like minds can trigger kids to develop schemas which can alter and modify their already delicate memories. And, although the operating maxim in most court jurisdictions is children do not lie and are not mistaken about sexual assault disclosures and must be believed and protected at all costs, they can make mistakes. Children’s errors out of court must be proven in court by the defense. An interviewer can help contaminate and adulterate a child’s information even if that child makes an affirmative outcry of sex abuse. It just so happens in this situation, SR was resistant to suggestibility during her forensic interview. In other words, she never articulated to the interviewer at the CAC that her father touched her sexually, or inappropriately. So, in child victim hearsay cases, kids must be treated with kid gloves to obviate legal disasters.
Dean Tong, MSc., CFC is a nationally-known Expert in Court cases involving allegations of child sexual abuse. A certified forensic consultant and nationally-certified child forensic interviewer, Tong is the Author of 3 books, including, Elusive Innocence: Survival Guide for the Falsely Accused. www.abuse-excuse.com