Part 2: Interviewing children about child sexual assault

By  | 

(WSAW) -- More than 300 times last year, a child sat down with one of two forensic interviewers in a little room at the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) in Wausau. Just across the hallway, a team of law enforcement, prosecutors, caseworkers and advocates sat around a TV screen, watching and listening as the child answered questions about an alleged maltreatment.

193 of those interviews were conducted because the child was reported to be the victim of a sexual assault.

The CAC model is simple. The child in a maltreatment investigation is interviewed just once, and the forensic interviewer works with the investigative team in real time to make sure they are able to get the most complete story possible. The interview is recorded and used throughout the investigation and court process.

The purpose is to protect the child from having to relive the trauma multiple times, in multiple interviews, with multiple people. Ultimately, it makes both the investigation and the court process as child-friendly as possible.

Having everyone at the same table and part of the same interview means different agencies aren’t missing information, but more importantly, the child only has to tell his or her story once.

The CAC is a non-profit organization with centers across the nation, and was designed to re-model the process of child sexual assault investigations. Lee Shipway, the executive director of Peaceful Solutions Counseling in Wausau, has been counseling victims since before the CAC existed.

"I'm going to take you back to 35 years ago when I first started doing treatment for trauma victims: little children, three years old, up through 18 years old,” Shipway reflected.

“They would have to help tell their story to the police officer, to the social worker for Child Protective Services. Then they would have to tell it again to the district attorney or the investigator for the district attorney's office. Then they would have to go to court and tell it on the stand. And so every time that child has to relive that. As you can imagine, it's very traumatizing for that child."

It was that realization that caused a district attorney to found the CAC model in 1993 with a team of other professionals, CAC’s Erica Huffman told 7 Investigates. The organization came to Marathon County in 2007, and it serves many of the counties across northcentral Wisconsin.

“It was a labor of love for all of the people that were involved at the very beginning,” Huffman noted. “They really had to find a way to come together with a common vision that would change how things operated, which is no small task.”

The interview process begins with total transparency for the child. When a reported victim is first led into the room, they’re shown the cameras and microphones, and made as comfortable as possible. If they express curiosity, they’ll be taken across the hall to meet the people who will be listening to the interview.

"We're able to do that process in a one-time shot and get everybody's questions answered in a way that's sensitive to the child's development, their psychological needs, and also in a way that's legally sound,” explained Jacqueline Gremler. She and Alicia Resch conduct all the interviews that come through the Wausau center.

It’s the interview questions themselves that can pose one of the biggest challenges for an investigation, and why it requires specially-trained interviewers. How do you ask a child about an alleged assault without leading them on or using language that’s inappropriate for a child?

It’s all about going into the interview with an open mind, Gremler explains.

“We’re there to learn about the child and their experiences from what they’re sharing with us, and all the questions that are asked are stemmed upon what the child is sharing. It’s just building upon that. We're not there to prove or disprove any one hypothesis from any one investigator in our room; we’re there to get a comprehensive idea of what that child is sharing with us.”

Resch explains further that it’s all about meeting a child where they’re at.

“We’re continually assessing that through the interview, and gauging if today’s the right day to tell their story, and what we can do to make it make them feel either less anxious, or less stressed, or less scared.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as getting them a snack, a drink--or a break. Other times, it might mean rescheduling an interview.

Both Gremler and Resch say that often, the child’s emotional reaction to the story they’re sharing is fairly calm--and much of that might be because of their own demeanors in the interview.

“We’ve created an environment that allows the kid to tell the story to an adult that isn’t reacting to what they’re saying,” Gremler says. “We don’t have an emotional response to what they’re sharing, so they finally get a chance to talk to someone that’s not--that they’re not giving it to and having a big reaction about...That they can talk about someone--like wow, that person’s not looking at me differently, they’re not upset about what I’m saying, I can share that with them. And so they are able to engage in the conversation and talk about it.”

Those reactions can vary in a lot of ways. Children do at times have strong emotional reactions, but Gremler and Resch say the children also pretty frequently just act like normal kids--even while sharing their trauma.

“I’ve had kids do somersaults for a half an hour while they’re talking to me about a time that they were sexually abused. I’ve had kids lay flat with their arms in their air talking. Whatever the child needs,” Gremler says.

Especially when it comes to getting the information that investigators need--for example, establishing that the child’s perpetrator had sexual intent--Resch and Gremler have to craft questions that are careful, non-leading, and sensitive to the child’s development.

“We are unique in that we craft those questions that will elicit an answer in the child’s own experience,” Gremler explains. “That’s what our jobs are for, is to be able to know what people need, and craft a question to be able to obtain that, that’s best-suited to the child and their needs.”

Resch adds that an important part of the interview is being aware of possible alternative hypotheses--such as when a sexual assault is reported, but the child’s answers reveal a much different situation.

“What else could have been going on?” Resch says. “Asking those questions to make sure we are exploring all the possibilities--and to be as neutral as possible. Which then kind of can help with those statutes and aligning with, ‘Was there something else that could have been happening?’”

Once the interview finishes, the child is provided with advocate services and a stuffed animal.

But the child isn’t the only one that gets resources at the CAC. While it is against their policy to allow parents to observe or participate in the actual interview, parents or caregivers are shown the entire process beforehand and are introduced to the investigative team. They’re also provided with advocate services to help them walk through the process of dealing with their child’s trauma.

“So those parents are getting connected to how can we help you cope—so you can help your child cope,” explained Christa Jensen, the supervisor for Marathon County’s CPS.

Resch said the child’s support system, whether that be parents, guardians, or others are not allowed to watch or listen in on the interview because they want the child to be as forthcoming about the information as possible.

Marathon County’s district attorney Theresa Wetzsteon remembers one case in particular—before the CAC interview process was available.

“That girl was five years old, and we did not want her to be in the room with the perpetrator,” she said. But the child had to testify anyway at the offender’s preliminary hearing—shortly after he was charged with the felony.

“We got through the hearing, but it was terrible,” Wetzsteon reflected. “Pretty traumatizing for her.”

And even though the CAC endeavors to eliminate the trauma as much as possible from the process, telling the story of abuse never gets easier for a victim.

Forensic interviewer Alicia Resch remembers that. "All the children that come to the child advocacy center are incredibly brave, and do the hardest work when they come here."