Most interviews taped in child abuse cases
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For years, there was a debate among health care professionals, prosecutors and the defense bar whether forensic interviews of children describing potential abuse ought to be recorded.
Locally, at the Child Advocacy Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, interviews conducted for other counties would routinely be recorded, while those for Allegheny County would not.
And at A Child's Place at Mercy, part of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, they previously did not have the equipment to do recordings.
But, that has all changed.
A Child's Place spent $44,000 to get recording equipment for its three locations in Allegheny County and, as of last month, has begun recording all interviews conducted.
And at Children's, beginning next month, all interviews there will be recorded.
"We studied it long and hard," said Joan Mills, the program manager at A Child's Place. "We're committed to this, and we think it's better for the kids and the outcome of the case."
Ms. Mills estimated that about 90 percent of child advocacy centers across the country record their interviews.
Before recordings were made, alleged abuse was documented in a report compiled by the forensic interviewer. That left it up to subjective interpretation by the interviewer of what a child said and what should be included in the report.
Even good note takers can't get every word, Ms. Mills said. "So you're missing a lot."
By having a recording, the relevant parties can see a child's emotional state, whether he or she might be acting out an event and make an independent determination on believability.
"That child will never again say that like they just said it," Ms. Mills said.
Furthermore, a recording also ensures that a child's appearance is accurate. Some cases can linger for so long in the system that a child victimized at age 10 can look completely different at age 13 or 14.
Although having a recording can facilitate plea negotiations, it cannot substitute for having a child testify at trial.
Because the forensic interview is often done as a part of a police investigation, it cannot be cross-examined, and therefore cannot be played at trial in lieu of a victim's testimony.
In that regard, the recording does not save a child from potentially being re-traumatized by having to testify.
Another downside to recording is that it can become more about how the interview itself was conducted than about the child and the crime being described.
Jamie Mesar, the manager at the Child Advocacy Center at Children's Hospital, said she worries, too, about how children will feel knowing that they are being recorded.
Still, most parties agree there is value to it.
Allegheny County chief public defender Elliot Howsie supports the concept of recording to ensure fairness for a defendant.
If a session is not recorded, he said, "We really don't know what's being asked in that interview, if the child is being led or answers are being suggested. This, I think, keeps everyone above board and holds them accountable."
Allegheny County deputy district attorney Laura Ditka, who heads the child abuse unit, said recorded interviews are "the most thorough and accurate accounting of what was said or done."
Further, she believes consistency is essential, which is why it will be good that both centers in Pittsburgh are using recordings.
"You can't pick and choose what interviews to record," she said.
The forensic interviewing process consists of open-ended questions, and the experts conducting the interviews ask the children to give a narrative of their experience.
"We don't use a lot of prompts like drawings," Ms. Mills said. "It's about fact-finding."
Children are told that they must tell the truth, and if they don't know the answer to a question, that that's OK.
At both centers, law enforcement officials are permitted to watch the interviews from behind mirrored glass. Parents are not permitted to watch. Only the child and interviewer are in the room together.
"You don't want a person that has a stake in the case in the room," Ms. Mills said.
First Published April 15, 2012 12:00 am