GIVING A VOICE TO THE VICTIMS (Our criminal-justice system must empower children who have been sexually abused)

    In one of the most outrageous cases of injustice, a Suffolk County court judge recently sentenced John Shelton to only one year of jail after he pleaded guilty to raping and sodomizing his stepdaughter for years.  In a statement from the girl read by her mother, the judge was asked: is this all my life is worth to you?  She added, When someone does something wrong, they should be punished, and I have been punished for five years.

    This child got a profoundly powerful message that the price of violating five years of her childhood was worth only one year of imprisonment.  It also sent a message to society: Why ruin this guy's life just for committing a sex offense against a child?

    Some attorneys suggest that Judge Stephen Braslow imposed a lighter sentence on Shelton rather than risk going to trial.  If the child's testimony was weak, Shelton, a first-time offender, might have won an acquittal.  These attorneys added that domestic sex-abuse cases sometimes come down to the word of the defendant against the word of the child.

    Our criminal-justice system is designed for adults, and even adults feel completely intimidated and frightened by it.  Imagine what it must be like for a child, especially one who must testify against an abuser at trial.  While prosecutors on Long Island try to make children feel comfortable by answering questions about what will happen in the courtroom, sometimes through individual mock exercises that involve dolls and coloring books and the aid of victims' advocates, the system should do more to accommodate their special developmental needs.

    Elsewhere, court schools and other innovative programs recognize that children cannot be expected to make good witnesses if they are not prepared.  Research bears that out.  In 1999, a US Justice Department report found that prepared and relaxed child victims are more credible witnesses.  The authors conclude that this preparation enables prosecutors to present stronger cases and win more convictions.

    Interviewing child victims can be very difficult because of age-related developmental limitations such as a lack of societal sophistication or an inability to understand abstract concepts.  These limitations make it sometimes impossible for children to understand legal terminology and complicated questions during examination, and defense attorneys capitalize on those limitations to confuse them and raise questions of reasonable doubt.

    It is extremely important that prosecutors, judges and attorneys who interview children have a background in child psychology.  If an interview is done incorrectly, it can seriously jeopardize a case.  A frightened, intimidated or embarrassed child can completely shut down.  Court preparation programs help the criminal-justice system avoid that by empowering children with legal knowledge, skills and emotional support.

    In Washington State, children and their parents go to a five-hour court school held on Saturdays.  Children meet with a judge and a prosecutor, who help them understand their role in the courtroom.  Both children and their parents are taught stress-reduction techniques.

    In the more innovative Ohio court-school program, children meet for three one-hour group sessions where they learn important concepts through videos, activities and role-playing exercises involving courtroom personnel, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court reporters and witnesses.  They learn what might seem like simple concepts to adults -- that they have rights in court such as taking a break or telling someone they don't hear or understand a question.  At no time do participants ever discuss their individual cases.

    In Philadelphia, a court-school program makes its sessions more stimulating and realistic through the use of puppets, coloring books, judge's robes, plastic gavels and stenography machines.  Most programs also include a tour of an actual courtroom.

    The need for this kind of instruction is greater than ever.  More than 13,000 children testify each year in sexual abuse cases in the United States -- up 2,000 percent over the last two decades.  Experts agree that while the number of reports have increased significantly due to new laws and increased awareness, the system has failed to show a corresponding change to accommodate victims' needs.

    Prosecutors have long said that dealing with children often leaves them no alternative but to drop or plea bargain a sexual-abuse case down to a lower-level offense that carries little or not jail time.  This leaves victims, their families and society at large with the belief that children are to blame for a failure to get good convictions and longer prison sentences.  This false notion has serious long-term implications for the well-being of children, their familles and their communities.

    Light sentencing sends a message of tolerance to sexual predators.  They continue to molest children knowing they can get away with it -- a cycle that only perpetuates the sexual victimization of children.  Light sentencing is perceived by children and their families as re-victimization.

    Two weeks after John Shelton's sentence, a Long Island mother of two girls who said they were raped by their baby-sitter accused a judge of virtually letting their abuser go free.  At a bench trial, Suffolk County Court judge Louis Ohlig sentenced Thomas Bliss to only three years probation, and no jail time, as part of a plea agreement.  During her victim-impact statement, the mother expressed anger at Ohl.ig for describing the incident in a conference as sexual experimentation.  Ohlig vehemently denied the allegation and went on to tell the mother he stopped the trial to prevent any additional harm to the two young ladies.  The harm he was referring to -- the requirement for children to testify to their sexual victimization in an open court.  

    Speaking to the girls, it becomes apparent that the harm had already been done.  One victim told me her day in court, even without a jury present, was horrible.  The 13-year-old went on to say, Nobody should have to experience it.  The defense attorney threw these big words at me that I didn't understand  Her sister, 16, said, It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me, but I was just glad to get it over with.

    Children like these two girls are traumatized by their courtroom experience, in part because of minimal preparation.  They had not even gotten a tour of the courtroom.  The sexual victimization of children must be taken more seriously, and the criminal justice system must stop blaming children and start allocating resources to implement programs to help them.  


We don't have a program in Nassau County like court school.  We do have an approach where we try to take care of some of the special issues that involve children.  The parent or guardian is always involved.  But at some point, it reaches a point where we speak to the child alone.  We have a suite of offices that's not terribly formal.  We have a playroom for interviews.  The first interview with a child often doesn't even involve a discussion of the crime.  This is to help develop a relationship with the child.  If the child's young, the meeting can be during a play session.  Usually, the district attorney handling the case takes the child to the grand jury room without the grand jury present.  If the child is to testify during a trial, he or she is taken to the courtroom beforehand and the process is explained.  Very often the child is escorted to the courthouse with an advocate from the Coalition for Child Abuse and Neglect in Garden City.  A social worker, crisis counselor or a psychologist can stay in the courtroom while the child testifies.  Oftentimes, a child is referred to a therapist.

-Toby Kurtz, chief of the Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Bureau in the Nassau County District Attorney's Office

I've seen terribly physically abused children who adore the parents.  They believe the abuse is love.  That's the only behavior they know.  So a child's mind can be affected by the parent.  The child is incapable of accusing the parent of abuse.  In one particular instance, these were children who had belt marks on their bodies.  Was this abuse?  No question.  I reported it to Social Services.  It was investigated, and they were left in the home.  I never saw them again.  There was nothing else I could do.  This was many years ago when Social Services hadn't cut its staff so seriously.  I shudder to think what's going on now.   Rather than focusing our resources on preparing children on how to testify in court, we should spend more time and money on preventing the abuse from ever taking place.

-Greta M. Rainsford, a school physician for the Roosevelt school district who has a private practice in Hempstead

The district attorney's office is well-suited to prepare their witnesses.  They sit with them.  They do mock cross examinations.  They confront them with discrepancies in their stories.  I don't find it problematic to prepare a witness for testimony at trial.  The problem you encounter is with coaching.  Children, unlike adults, get a sense of what they're expected to say.  If it's not very carefully handled, a child looking for the approval of adults may be testifying based on what he thinks he should say as opposed to actual events.  I have a problem with a judicial system carving out exceptions to constitutional protections - relaxing the standard of proof for anybody.  That is a cold statement, but it's a zero-tolerance thing.  The Constitution is the Constitution.  The rules have to be the same for everybody.

-Robert Del Col, Huntington defense attorney who defended Thomas Bliss and has represented other clients accused of sexually abusing children

I've always had concerns when I do evaluations in sex-abuse cases that the child is tainted from the beginning.  You have cops coming to speak to the child.  Then you have someone from Social Services.  Before you know it, the child has spoken to 10 different people.  There's always this risk of having a child coached or trained to be a good witness for the prosecution.  Coaching is unethical.  Facts may be exaggerated.  There may be distortions.  It's potentially very dangerous.   There are a lot of child molesters out there who need to have the book thrown at them.  But if you want to have criminal justice work, it can't be inherently biased, even for young children.

-Roy Aranda, clinical and forensic psychologist who teaches at Hoftra University