4.19.2008

TS - Team's mission: Ease young victims' trauma

Team's mission: Ease young victims' trauma

EUREKA -- It's clear upon entering the Child Abuse Services Team's K Street facility that this is a child-friendly place.

Primary colors abound. One wall hosts a shelf full of puzzles, stuffed animals and wood blocks. A middle-of-the-room child-size table beckons play. The receptionist's computer hides behind a lineup of colorful puppets, and a carpet with streets and city blocks covers the waiting-room floor. Plus, there are stuffed animals almost everywhere you look.

The business, however, is very serious for the adults and often more than a little nerve-wracking for the children involved.
On Friday, the Child Abuse Services Team (CAST) welcomed the community to an open house, and explained the interview process designed to gather necessary information but minimize further trauma to the young victims.

The multi-agency team works to set the victim at ease, informing the parents of the process and carefully recording the victim's interview -- all the while ensuring that the questions asked determine whether a legal case is appropriate.

Since its inception locally in 1996, CAST has interviewed 1,967 children -- an average of 16 a month. A total of 487 convictions for physical or sexual abuse of children have resulted.

The work begins when a young victim -- typically between the ages of 4 and 18 -- receives a law enforcement referral. CAST also has interviewed adults with developmental disabilities.

Prior to the interview, a member of the team explains the process and answers questions from the parents or the child, said CAST member and Department of Social Services social worker Jennifer Rose. “Most of the time, they come ready to go,” she said.

Typically, the interviews are scheduled within three or four days of initial contact with law enforcement, said Humboldt County District Attorney's Office Investigator Billy Honsal.

The interview room is equipped with a one-way mirror, allowing Honsal, Deputy District Attorney Kelly Neel, and a police officer from the referring agency observe from an adjoining room.

The room also includes all of the recording equipment to make a DVD of the interview, which is then turned over to the law enforcement agency and handled through strict rules of evidence, according to Donna Johnson, head of the CAST team.

Neel, who has worked with CAST full-time since last summer, is able to evaluate the case through observing the interview, identify the need for additional information and may be able to determine whether a criminal case is involved.

”Not every case that comes to the door ends up being a criminal prosecution,” she said.

The child being interviewed is told that observers are watching through the one-way mirror and that the interview is being recorded, Johnson said.

Each of the interviewers undergoes extensive training -- a minimum of 40 hours at the National Training Center in Huntsville, Ala. -- as well as more training on-site.

Among the CAST members is Jean LaPietra, who is fluent in Spanish and available for translation services, not only for Humboldt County but also Del Norte, Mendocino, Trinity and Siskiyou.

The first step is to make the victim feel comfortable through non-threatening questions. As the discussion progresses, Honsal can direct the process from the adjacent room, with specific questions that determine whether a crime has been committed or request more detail.

It's not an easy process for any of those involved, whether it's the child being questioned or the adult witnesses hearing the child's trauma.

”It's always hard to listen to what's happening to children,” Neel said. “But it's harder not to.”

Meanwhile, Deana Fewell, the District Attorney's Office's victim-witness representative, meets with the parents to explain the entire process. But her role as a member of CAST goes far beyond that.

She accompanies the child to any interview, acquaints the child with the courtroom, provides books and videos to explain the procedures and even sits with the child on the witness stand if necessary.

”Ideally, at its best,” said District Attorney Paul Gallegos, “it limits interaction with law enforcement and is a reliable way questions are asked.”

Jessie Faulkner/The Times-Standard
Article Launched: 04/19/2008 01:24:09 AM PDT