In April 2007, an 11-year-old girl named Anna would dissolve in tears when her elementary school counselor asked about her withdrawn demeanor and falling grades.
Her response: She'd been raped by a neighbor in her apartment building.
A year later, the soft-spoken girl, whose round face still showed baby fat, would describe that attack before a packed courtroom audience, which included the young children of the man she'd accused and a jury of grown-ups she'd never met.
Anna's journey through the judicial process was long and difficult, as are most cases involving children who have been sexually assaulted. Those children must try to navigate through a criminal justice system that cannot always simplify its complexities or amend its procedures to accommodate their perspectives.
If a child's testimony is too vague, juries or judges may conclude they don't have enough information to reach an informed decision.
If a child is able to articulate the graphic details of an assault, he or she must endure a defense attorney's efforts to pick apart that account.
The stakes are high. On one side -- a child's safety, future and ability to trust adults. On the other -- an adult's reputation and possibly his freedom.
The case of Anna, who emigrated from another country to settle in Western Pennsylvania, traversed many stages of that process as it unfolded. Like all victims who report sexual assault, she is not identified by her real name because the Post-Gazette does not name victims who allege sexual assault.
Victim advocates say common strands wind through the 2,400-plus cases of sexual assaults on children, including rapes, reported each year in Pennsylvania.
In Allegheny County, the district attorney's office prosecuted 143 sexual assault cases during the first six months of 2008 -- the most recent statistics available. Approximately a dozen child rape cases are tried each year in county courts, according to the district attorney's office.
An under-reported crime
Prosecutors and victim advocates said they believe the actual number is much higher, however, and frequently refer to sexual assaults on children as the most under-reported crimes in America.
For many victims, considerable time often passes --ï¿ 1/2 21/2 years in Anna's case -- before they dare to share their accounts with anyone. Child advocates said young victims often agonize over whether adults will believe them and the ramifications of their disclosures.
Anna's ï¿ 1/2school counselor, as required by law, reported the girl's account on April 10, 2007. Following standard protocol, local police and investigators from Children, Youth and Families responded. A child advocate from the Center for Victims of Violence and Crime in East Liberty also met Anna, and remained involved with her case throughout the court proceedings.
Because Anna did not report the attack immediately, police did not ask her to undergo a medical examination because too much time had passed to gather evidence. But officials did set up a forensic interview for Anna two days later at A Child's Place at UPMC Mercy.
While a detective from a sex assault squad and a CYF investigator observed through a one-way mirror, Anna sat through an interview aimed at establishing areas for legal and medical follow-up in cases where investigators have determined a need to dig deeper.
The trained forensic interviewer asked questions that were designed to be nonleading and phrased in language geared to Anna's maturity.
Anna could not provide a firm date for the assault, but told her interviewer: "It was probably in 2005 or something. I think I was 9 years old ... 9 ... yeah, because I came [to the area] when I was 8."ï¿ 1/2 She said, "It might have been summer. It was hot."ï¿ 1/2
Anna, then a fifth-grader, guessed she "was, like, in third grade" at the time and her friend ï¿ 1/2-- her neighbor, and the daughter of her accused attacker -- "was, like, in fourth grade."ï¿ 1/2
Anna said her friend's family, who lived downstairs in her apartment building, was moving to another state in three days. Two days before the move, she said her friend's father asked her to help him in a basement storage room. Once inside, she said, he locked the door and turned off the light. He picked her up, held her against a chicken wire divider and "was humpingï¿ 1/2 her."
She said he kissed her mouth and licked her face. He touched her neck, shoulders, arms and her breasts on top of her shirt. He made her touch his "privates."ï¿ 1/2 He took off her pants and underwear, removed his clothing, pinned her against the chicken wire fence and raped her. Then he gave her a dollar and told her not to tell anyone what had happened, she said.
Sex assault unit detectives took this information and began collecting evidence for an arrest warrant. This process generally takes at least two to four weeks. Anna's case took longer because the suspect by then was living in another state with his family.
Police arrested and charged him with rape and other offenses on Oct. 1, 2007, six months after Anna's report. She testified at a preliminary hearing, and the man was ordered to stand trial.
In a meeting later with a prosecutor, Anna gave her account again. The assistant district attorney peppered her with tough questions intended to prepare her for cross-examination during trial.
By then, the man charged with assaulting Anna, like most rape suspects at this point, had spent time in a correctional facility, where fellow inmates classify accused child rapists ï¿ 1/2-- whether they have had their day in court -- as the lowest life form.
"The charges alone ruin your life,"ï¿ 1/2 said Michelle Collins, an assistant public defender in Allegheny County.
Three years after the summer she pinpointed having been raped, Anna, by then 12, testified in the trial. The small, chubby girl wore too many clothes for the warm weather that day. She spoke with little emotion, and her face showed no expression even as tears slid down her cheeks.
Watching her in the courtroom were a number of the defendant's family members, including several children and his wife ï¿ 1/2-- a close friend of Anna's mother.
Defense attorney Angela Carsia called the defendant, who like his accuser, was an immigrant, to the stand. In simple, accented English, he testified that he did not assault Anna or touch her in any way.
The jury also heard from Anna's counselor and sister. A friend of the defendant testified that he'd already moved to New England at the time Anna said the rape occurred.
In her closing argument, Ms. Carsia told jurors that the evidence they'd heard did not prove her client's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Why would she lie?
Assistant District Attorney P. Christopher Hoffman recounted how Anna --ï¿ 1/2 a bright, upbeat kid who, teachers said, had resembled a sponge soaking up information -- started to weep one day at school and told her counselor she'd been raped. Her counselor testified that records showed her classroom performance had steadily deteriorated between second and fifth grade.
"Why would an 11-year-old lie to her counselor?" ï¿ 1/2he asked jurors. "Because she's getting bad grades? Why would she make these things up?
"She had to tell her counselor, her mother, a forensic interviewer, [and testify] at the preliminary hearing. Why would she lie? It doesn't make any sense.
"Maybe you wanted DNA evidence? Another witness? That's not the instructions the judge is going to give you. Her testimony is enough. We have these laws because we understand that children are not miniature adults, that's why we have laws for delayed reporting. ï¿ 1/2
"He turned the lights off, took her clothing off and raped her. She's not confused about the one important thing about this case. The dates don't matter. She's not lying to you. She has no reason. No motivation," he said.
The same day, the jury acquitted the defendant on all counts: rape of a child, two counts of indecent assault of a person under 13 and corruption of minors.
Anna's mother and the defendant's wife cried. Anna remained impassive.
A month later, attorneys for the defendant filed a motion seeking to expunge, or clear, his record.
County prosecutors fought his effort to erase the outcome from court records, as they typically do in all cases involving acquittals in child sex assault cases. Despite their opposition, a judge last fall granted his request.
Gabrielle Banks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1370.