Webinar presenters Hilary Weinberg and Patrick Beumler answered a number of your questions after their presentation, Children as Witnesses in Domestic Violence Cases. Here are some of their responses.
Audience Question: In Nebraska, a statute provides children to be forensically interviewed by a trained interviewer. How soon after the incident should the children be interviewed?
Hilary Weinberg: As soon as humanly possible. If you wait too long to get a forensic interview, depending on the age of the child, they're going to forget things, they're going to be coached on what to say. You want to get that child to a forensic interviewer as quickly as possible.
Here in Maricopa County, we have a dedicated forensic interviewer who's actually on call. So, if there is some traumatic incident that happens at 3 o'clock in the morning, there will be access for law enforcement to get ahold of that person, to meet at a family advocacy center to talk to that child fairly soon after the incident happen.
The other thing that happens is if you wait, then if there's more than one child there, they may start talking to each other and all of sudden the story of one child becomes the automatic story of all the rest of the children. They kind of mix them there. There are cases where we had a homicide of one parent, there's a number of child witnesses there, and for whatever reason, law enforcement said, "We can wait a day or two". No, you can't. Get those children separated, get them in there and get them talked to as soon as humanly possible. Because then, you don't have to fight those battles over whether the children were coached, what else went on, what else was said to them before they actually get to talk to somebody about what they saw. Get them in there as soon as you can.
Patrick Beumler: Those are all very valid points and one thing that I just want to throw in there is that a lot of forensic interviewers will tell you that, optimally, if we could get them on a full night's sleep and fed in the morning, they'll be much more productive in the interview than they would've if they’re tired and falling asleep on you and those kind of things.
There's kind of a counter-measure, weight and balance of how soon you can get them in versus making sure you get a productive interview as well. Those are all things to consider, but definitely, soon as you can get the most productive interview is ideal.
Audience Question: How does a person go about interviewing children whose parents refuse to allow them to be interviewed?
Patrick Beumler: A lot of times, it's depending on what role the jurisdiction of the local Department of Child Safety / Child Protective Service plays. Say it is a single parent household and that's the parent that's the abuser and they're not willing to give up the child for the interview, oftentimes what we'll do is we'll go through the Child Protective Agency and get a temporary custody notice served and the State becomes the temporary guardian of that child to protect them. We then conduct the interview after that's been served on the parent.
Audience Question: Since these cases can take months to go to trial, if you were to use the child as a witness during the trial, what happens when the child cannot remember the scenario given that it could be up to a year ago?
Hilary Weinberg: I guess we'll need a little bit more information as far as they're testifying. The important thing is — and we'll talk about this when we get back for our part 2… but you don't want to meet the child for the first time when they're walking in the courtroom and getting on the witness stand. Part of what you're going to be doing is prepping, and if the child doesn't remember, the child doesn't remember. You go with the evidence you have. And there are ways that we can get in evidence of what that interview was if they had any spontaneous statements to the police.
There's a lot of scenarios there so I don't know if I could quite answer the question exactly. But part of what you must do when you have a child as a witness is you have to develop some type of rapport with that child sometimes to get them to cooperate with you. Sometimes they're selectively remembering.
We had a case here in Maricopa County, I think it was about a year ago. One of our sex crimes prosecutors did a really fantastic job. She had a child who just didn't want to talk unless he was sitting under the table. She crawled into under the table with him. And he was actually able to talk and testify about things. There's a lot of tactics and things that you can learn through the forensic interviewing training on how to handle the children witnesses. Those are things that we will touch on a little bit more on May, but I hope I was giving you at least a sort of preview of some answers to that question.
Audience Question: Are the children considered as CPS referrals or are they viewed as victim-witnesses if the mom goes to the hospital and the dad goes to jail?
Hilary Weinberg: It kind of depends, a lot of times they're viewed as victim-witnesses because if the child is the witness to mom getting severely beaten by dad or the other way around. I typically, in my charging make them a victim of disorderly conduct because they were disturbed by the conduct of the other parent. Sometimes, there may have been a weapon that was involved. In that kind of scenario, they would become a victim witness.
Audience Question: How much of the information gathered during the investigation or prosecutorial stages end up being made available to probation officers for subsequent supervision? Is this information useful for supervision?
Patrick Beumler: I would say it's very useful for supervision especially if you're utilizing some sort of lethality or coercive control assessment so you can identify who those abusers are and provide that information to the probation officer that's looking after that probationer. Again, it will come down to the local jurisdiction and what kind of relationship you have with that probation office.
In Glendale, we have a fairly equitable relationship and oftentimes we're sharing that information back and forth because we utilize our probation department a lot as far as they have certain access and privileges to residences that can get us into places that we normally couldn't get into without a search warrant. Having those good relationships and networking on both ends definitely helps us in a lot of regards and it helps their job as well because if they're keeping closer tabs on that probationer then the victim's safety is that much more in the limelight.
Audience Question: What are the follow-up procedures for engaging a child's school for follow up?
Patrick Beumler: The school part is tricky for law enforcement because of the Supreme Court decision that necessitates a court order, parent's permission, (PC or exigency be present.) There's a lot of hiccups when it comes to actually trying to get in a school to interview a child that's a victim of domestic violence. It's one of those things that we try not to go down that road if we can avoid it. If that's the best way to get ahold of them, then we'll go through a judge, or if we got a cooperative parent — maybe the other victim, then that's our way in.
But oftentimes, if we can get to that child after school or before school, that would be key to bypass that hurdle.
Audience Question: From a prosecutor's perspective, how much coercion from parents with a child may make or break a case? And if after the police have interviewed the child, what happens if the child's response changes by the time of the trial?
Hilary Weinberg: It can vary. If you have a witness, regardless of who it is, who makes an inconsistent statement or a subsequent statement that is different from the initial statement. We get that statement, we send our law enforcement out or detective. We get the child re-interviewed and then we disclose that statement to the defense.
You take your evidence as you have it and if it becomes a case where we have to impeach a child at trial, or argue that they change their story, or we have evidence of that type of coercion, those are all things that will come out in the wash. It will be up to a jury of 6, 8, or 12 to determine what they believe. If we have the video footage of the police getting there that night, a hysterical child crying and spewing out what happened. One parent at the hands of the other parent, that's pretty compelling evidence. We get this type of thing all the time where we have children who may be pressured, or convinced that maybe they don't want to go forward with this, or things will be bad if daddy goes to jail, we can't live here anymore… We see that more often than we ever want to. So, we just deal with our evidence as we can.
Click Here to View a Recording of Hilary Weinberg and Patrick Beumler's presentation, Children as Witnesses in Domestic Violence Cases.