When I started at the District Attorney's Office in 1988, child-abuse cases were few in number, usually involving sexual abuse, rarely tried and sometimes not successfully. It took years, countless hours of research and training, many trials, some helpful changes in the law, and the unstinting commitment of police, C&YS and DA Gricar, but by the time I left the Office in 2006 we had been able to make some remarkable progress in all aspects of abuse prosecution. The current and future reputation for excellence by the Centre County District Attorney's Office in this area is a large part of what is at stake in this year's election.Improvements Over Time:
1998 Joint Police/C&YS Investigative Protocol: Eliminated duplicative interviewing of the child victim. Eliminated lengthy delays between C&YS and police interviews which often led suspects, aware of the report, to refuse to talk with police. Minimized opportunities for intimidation of the child by the suspect. Allowed either police or C&YS to conduct the interview, depending on skill, comfort levels, and experience. Facilitated scheduling medical evaluation of the child. Provided for agency information-sharing and cooperation. Led to increased admissions and better results either through plea or through trial.
Increased use of expert medical testimony in all types of abuse cases: Provided medical testimony that explained that absence of injury in sexual assault does not suggest non-occurrence, eliminating a problem in past cases born of arguments that the child was "fantasizing." Provided expert testimony on what was medically possible, eliminating past problems with defense contentions that a minor fall or sibling injury caused serious injury in physical abuse cases. Made it possible to successfully prosecute a number of "shaken baby" cases by matching expert medical testimony on time-frames for occurrence of injury with careful police documentation as to which of potential suspects had been alone with the child during those periods.
Provided detailed memoranda and consultation for police on negotiating the maze of statutes, statute of limitation provisions, "tolling" provisions and proper charging provisions in these cases, particularly in those in which the conduct was reported years after the fact.
Presented many cases for pre-charging evaluation to the AG's Medical/Legal Board on Child Abuse. Most resulted in confirmation of the investigative findings. In some cases, however, the medical evidence was brought into question and in those cases the suspect was not charged.
Specialized the child-abuse prosecution function: The practice prior to specialization was that an officer would arrange to have one of the ADA staff interview a child in order to determine readiness to testify. There was no requirement then that the ADA who did the assessment should have any particular amount of experience taking abuse cases to trial. In the mid-90s, after a staff departure, two victims of the same suspect were both noted from an ADA interview to be not "ready" to testify. The call was incorrect in both cases. I was assigned to follow up, both cases were reopened, the children testified without incident, and the perpetrator is currently serving a lengthy sentence of State incarceration. In another instance, an angry juror complained when an ADA who did not often prosecute abuse failed to ask an obvious follow-up question of a child, leading to acquittal as the only option the jury felt they had. Specialization minimized the opportunity for these types of situations.
Excuses and Realities:
The current Centre County District Attorney has made statements on several occasions that he is "sparing the child the trauma of testifying" as a rationale for lenient dispositions. I would never suggest that testifying in court is a "walk in the park" for any child, because it is not. For raw courage, nothing outstrips that of the children I have worked with in court.
But the excuse is just that -- an excuse -- and it does not comport with reality. First it is seriously misleading because, in virtually every abuse case, the child victim has ALREADY undergone the "trauma of testifying" at the preliminary hearing which moves the case from being a police complaint to being a "court case." The setting for that hearing usually involves an audience in the room which far exceeds the attendance at any normal trial. It is also the first time the child has taken the witness stand, has had to describe the conduct publicly, and has had to do so in the presence of the charged person.
Nor does the excuse comport with how child victims view the court process. A child cares nothing about "felonies" or Megan's Law or mandatory sentencing. Most child victims care only that the offender "admit he/she did it" or, failing that, that the jury "say" that he/she "did it." The powerlessness and loss of control a child experiences during abuse is at least to some degree ameliorated by the turning of the tables in court, particularly for children who were told during the abuse "even if you do tell, no one will believe you." The TRUE TRAUMA -- the lasting one -- is the experience of abuse. No victim ever truly "puts it behind them." It is simply dealt with. And living with the sense that an abuser has not been held accountable, or only minimally so, simply adds to that burden.
And finally, the excuse ignores the basic tenets of common sense and human nature. In order to encourage the entry of pleas which will spare a child victim the need to testify a second time at trial, the Office must have the kind of reputation that makes it clear to the defense bar that if a plea cannot be mutually agreed upon which is REASONABLE, JUST and COMMENSURATE WITH THE CONDUCT, the prosecution is both willing and able to "go the distance" and prove its case at trial. Cave-ins to convenience, expediency, fear of losing at trial, or simple lack of motivation to do the work of trying a case quickly erode the credibility of the Office as being up to the task. A downward spiral begins which impacts not just public safety and that child or his/her family, but also prosecutors who are given no reason to improve trial skills because they will rarely be needed, dedicated police officers who see careful, thorough investigations result in no more just outcomes than perfunctory ones, and families of future victims who look at outcomes and wonder if going through the court process will ever result in meaningful justice for what has happened to their child.
This link is provided for every child who will one day come to court needing to rely on the skill, determination and wisdom of a prosecutor, judge, and jurors they barely know but must nonetheless wholly trust. Much of my prosecution has been in this area and I offer no apology for the strength of my viewpoints on it. But regardless of whom you ultimately cast your vote for in the coming primary and general elections, you will serve both your community and your family well by insisting that the next Centre County District Attorney maintain the highest possible levels of skill and expertise in child-abuse prosecution.