Domestic Violence can be a problematic case. The community might not want to meddle with such cases with the belief that such disputes must be dealt with by the family only. However, domestic violence can easily escalate and ‘simple’ beating can turn into homicide. What makes DV cases even more sensitive is the fact that children can also be victims or witnesses of domestic violence. However, there seems to be doubt about the reliability of putting children on the witness stand.
Today, Patrick Beumler and Hilary Weinberg are sharing their expertise when it comes to utilizing children as witnesses in domestic violence cases. Patrick is the family violence supervisor of Glendale PD’s Criminal Investigation Division and Hilary Weinberg is the Family Violence Chief of the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. They both have significant experience dealing with domestic violence cases and handling child witnesses in their careers.
Patrick provides his insights as an investigator while Hilary shares her knowledge on the subject from the prosecution’s perspective. They imparted their knowledge and provided a detailed discussion on:
- A sample 911 call where the child was able to provide necessary details on a domestic violence case illustrating how effective children can be as witnesses.
- Statistics exhibiting the gravity of domestic violence cases and the impact of such events to children.
- How children can serve as witnesses by providing details on what they see and hear during the incident as well as observe the tension and situation before such incidents and the aftermath of physical abuse.
- The wealth of information including family history, patterns and severity of domestic violence in their homes.
- The various emotional responses induced by domestic violence to children like fear, guilt, shame, depression, and anger.
- Physical symptoms that may transpire after witnessing domestic violence like bedwetting, headaches, and stomachaches, or physical injuries if they tried to intervene.
- Behavioral indicators like withdrawal, anxiety, self-injury, aggression, or developmental delays due to domestic violence.
- How training the community, parents, and teachers can help in identifying risk factors of domestic violence.
- What law enforcement can do by triaging their caseloads, protecting the victims and their children, building a stronger case and conducting lethality assessments.
- The flaws in the simplistic approach taught by the Academy to build a case and investigate a domestic violence case.
- Building a stronger evidence-based case by beginning with the end in mind — that is to get a proof beyond reasonable doubt.
- The areas to pay attention to when building a case as new evidence, follow-up interviews, photography, history of domestic violence and criminal history, and medical reports.
- How law enforcement must treat children as a critical aspect of case-building by paying attention to initial statements from the children.
Points to consider during an on-scene investigation interview:
- Recording interviews through bodycam or digital recorder
- Detailed written reports
- Complete and immediate interviews with victims and witnesses
- Ensuring that witnesses, especially children aren’t influenced by others
- Utilizing lethality/danger assessment
- Checking for signs of trauma or abuse
Important elements in evidence collection:
- Preservation of physical evidence
- Photographs of visible injuries and the crime scene right after the incident
- Electronic evidence available on communication devices and social media
- Copy of 911 recordings
- Follow-up on injury progression through visit and photography
- Poll questions during the webinar are on the age of the child who made the call in the sample 911 audio recording, the value of 911 call recordings, and the audience’s training in forensic interviewing.
Hilary and Patrick took turns answering the webinar attendees’ queries on the Q&A portion that covered:
- The importance of getting a productive forensic interview with the child/ren immediately when they are less likely to have been influenced by others, even siblings.
- Asking Child Protection Service’s intervention in cases where the parent is refusing the child/ren to be interviewed.
- Prepping a child to get on the witness stand through rapport and ways to deal with them if they suddenly forget or refuse to talk.
- Treating the children as victim-witnesses where the child/ren is regarded as a victim of disorderly conduct of the parent.
- The information sharing and relationship between law enforcement and probation officers on DV cases.
- Workarounds when the only time a child can be followed up on is at school.
- Dealing with witnesses that provide inconsistent statements or recant their testimony
Other resources mentioned:
First Things First that makes funding available for training staff for forensic interviewing. (1:03:05) First Things First | Website
Cornerhouse is a good resource for forensic training and interviewing children. (1:04:57) Cornerhouse | Website