Protecting Children Undergoing Abuse Investigations and Testimony

Approved by Council, February 1986
To be reviewed

There is a growing public awareness of child sexual abuse which is increasing the number of cases reported and the number of children undergoing investigation and courtroom procedures. Based on the seriousness, stress, and potential trauma of investigations and testimony for sexually abused children, the Academy recommends modifications to allow children a safe and just way to participate in the legal system.

Child sexual abuse cases require special judicial treatment because:

1. Young victims may not be able to understand trial procedures that have been designed for adults;

2. The atmosphere of the courtroom can be threatening, confusing, and frightening for children;

3. Additional emotional stress for sexually abused children can result from direct testimony in public;

4. Insensitive and repetitive cross-examination of abused children can be misperceived by them as further abuse;

5. Face-to-face confrontation by a child victim with the perpetrator may result in severe additional trauma;

6. The judicial process may be blocked when testimony is withheld because of fear or confusion, and;

7. The complexities and potential harm to child and parent that arise when false allegations of sexual abuse are made in the context of custody or visitation disputes are apparent.

Recognizing that young children have special needs and modes of self-expression, the following modifications in legal proceeding for cases of child sexual abuse are urgently recommended:

1. Provide a reasonable limit on the number of times a child is interviewed, record or videotape the first interview, and have adequately trained professionals do the first interview;

2. Coordinate and expedite juvenile and criminal court proceedings by means of single, but thorough, investigations, and shared information between civil and criminal cases;

3. The use of child psychiatrists and other adequately trained adults to support and interpret for children during investigations and testimony;

4. The use of child psychiatrists and other qualified professionals to evaluate:

  • the competency of the child to testify,
  • the credibility of the child's allegation,
  • whether the child is emotionally disturbed and in need of treatment,
  • whether the child will be able to cope with the stress of giving testimony,
  • whether the child would be psychologically further damaged by giving testimony,
  • to ensure that the child receives psychological preparation to appear in court, and
  • to further evaluate if it is in the child's best interest to have contact with the alleged perpetrator and under what circumstances if any, prior to court proceedings, particularly if the perpetrator is a relative.

5. Modifications to hearsay and other evidentiary restrictions with appropriate safeguards to enable judges to better protect child witness-victims and allow appropriate out-of-court statements;

6. The exclusion of spectators from the courtroom except as necessary to the trial;

7. Alternations of the courtroom setting to be more comfortable and familiar to small children including testimony in judges chambers, bathroom breaks, snack breaks, age-appropriate testimony duration, child-sized furniture, the use of toys, dolls, drawings and other communication aids;

8. Allowing the child the option not to look at the accused, and allowing the use of live two-way closed circuit television for grand jury appearances and in certain cases during the actual trial;

9. Priority for child abuse cases on court schedules;

10. Training by child and adolescent psychiatrists and other qualified mental-health professional for police, judges, involved attorneys, and an age appropriate language and procedures for children;

11. Allow criminal courts the authority to grant civil orders to protect children from further abuse, grant juvenile courts the authority to enforce treatment orders, enhance the existence and public awareness of treatment options, and;

12. A limited model program to consider elimination or extension of the statute of limitations in cases of child sexual abuse to allow legal recourse for minors when they reach the age of majority, thus fostering protection and justice.