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Obtaining reliable testimony in sex crimes with child victims

"Man, 74, charged with sexual abuse of then 6-year-old." So reads a recent headline from a jurisdiction not far from Norfolk and Hampton Roads. The story goes on to say that the individual is facing an array of sex crime charges including sexual abuse of a minor, child abuse and sex offenses of varying degrees.

It is not our intent here to delve into the details of this particular case. Rather, we hope to use it to look at one of the most challenging aspects of dealing with these kinds of crimes - obtaining testimony from the alleged victim and ensuring that it is reliable. Considering the consequences that can result if a person charged with a child sex crime is convicted, the importance of reliable testimony is clear.

It should surprise no one that child victims do not necessarily make the best sources of the truth in investigations. They often do not understand what they have been through. The trauma of the events might cause a child to suffer a level of amnesia about what happened. Even if they remember the ordeal, they might not know how to talk about it. It is in light of this that experts have started to develop the special investigative technique called forensic interviewing.

Up until the 1990s, this area had received relatively little attention. Prior to that, a number of high profile cases in which suspects were accused and convicted of sexual abuse made news. Those cases relied on testimony derived from standard police interrogation practices. Only later did it become clear that those techniques caused child victims to give false information.

In recent years, experts have started to develop best practices for conducting forensic interviews based on how children remember, communicate, and develop socially. One result is a set of protocols intended to guide trained interviewers through specific steps to elicit meaningful and reliable information.

In the story we referenced in the opening, it's reported that forensic interviewing was used. Whether it adhered to what experts would consider accepted best practices is not known. For the defendant's sake, it would seem to be worth exploring.

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