HD22 - Study of the Regional Videotaping Centers for Child Sexual Assault Victims

Executive Summary:
Pursuant to HJR 280, the Commission on Youth undertook the study of the feasibility of regional videotaping centers for child sexual assault victims. Through the efforts of the Commission staff and the workgroup convened for this study, the Commission recognized the need to evaluate the overall process of investigation in child sexual assault cases, as well as procedures which may reduce the trauma experienced by a child in a courtroom. The following recommendations are offered to improve the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases in Virginia.

Closed circuit testimony is one of a number of courtroom accommodations to reduce the trauma experienced by child victims and to enhance their ability to testify. Current Virginia statute allows for the use of closed circuit testimony for child victims the age of 12 and under, when the court finds that the child would suffer severe emotional trauma from testifying in the presence of the defendant. Most judges have applied the age standard to the child’s age at the time of the trial. The trauma suffered by the child is a result of the abuse, and is related to the time at which the abuse occurred. The child’s age at the time of the trial is arbitrary and may be subject to manipulation. Any protections afforded to the child because of his age should relate to the time of the offense.

Recommendation 1

Amend Section 63.1-248.13:1 (civil proceedings) and Section 18.2-67.9 (criminal proceedings) to allow for the use of closed circuit television in proceedings involving alleged abuse or neglect of a child and/or involving specified offenses against a child, who is the age of 14 or under at the time of the alleged offense and under eighteen (18) at the time of the trial.

Child abuse often occurs within families. Siblings are often witnesses to the abuse and are threatened with serious consequences if they report what they have observed. Child witnesses may also experience severe trauma if required to face the accused in court. This trauma may make them unable to testify.

Recommendation 2

Amend Section 63.1-248.13.1 (civil proceedings) and Section 18.2-67.9 (criminal proceedings) to include an allowance for the use of closed circuit television for child witnesses who were the age of fourteen (14) or under at the time of the alleged offense, and are under eighteen (18) at the time of the trial.

Child abuse has been recognized as one of the most difficult crimes to detect and prosecute. Interviews with children provide unique opportunities to gather and document evidence that is essential to prosecution of the case. Current Virginia law mandates the audio taping of these interviews. A great deal of controversy exists around the merit of videotaping the investigative interviews. A child’s disclosure of abuse may take place over several interviews and over an extended period of time. A single initial interview, captured on videotape, may not be a complete account of the alleged abuse. In addition, the knowledge that an interview is being videotaped may make a child uncomfortable, and less able to tell his story. Questions about interviewers’ skills have been raised and the tendency to critique the interviewer, rather than listen to the child’s report has been identified as a concern. Further concerns were identified around the issues of confidentiality, preservation and ownership of videotapes once they are made, and about access to the tapes. Finally, financial and logistical problems make videotaping of all investigative interviews impossible for some Virginia localities.

Recommendation 3

The Commonwealth of Virginia should not mandate the videotaping of investigative interviews in child abuse cases.

Multidisciplinary team models for the investigation of child abuse have proven effective in coordinating the judicial and social service systems’ response to victims of child abuse. The keys to the success of the model are the teams’ ability to function collaboratively and the wide range of coordinated services (medical, mental health, legal, etc.) offered to children and their families.

Recommendation 4

The Department of Social Services and the Department of Criminal Justice Services should support local and regional teams in the implementation of successful investigatory models by disseminating information about program models, providing technical assistance, and identifying potential funding sources to localities.

Virginia has the technology and the technical expertise to make closed circuit testimony available throughout the state. Prosecutors report that they do not know enough about the use of closed circuit technology and its applicability in child abuse cases to request it on behalf of their clients. Few judges have had such requests brought before them. Educational opportunities should be provided to judges and prosecutors, with a focus on the current statute, applicability to specific cases, timing of the motion hearing, legal burden, finding of trauma, and technology.

Recommendation 5

The Department of Criminal Justice Services, through the Children’s Justice Act, should provide comprehensive education to judges and prosecutors in the use of closed circuit testimony in child abuse cases.