• September/October 2001
  • Vol. 2, No. 5

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Preparing Kids for Court

When preparing a child victim for court, child abuse professionals need to be aware of the "Judge Judy effect" and other misconceptions about court that children learn from television.

Besides teaching kids that all judges are not mean like Judge Judy on T.V., child abuse professionals need to be aware of stressors caused by the court process and to educate the child witness about what to expect in court. In addition, caregivers and prosecutors need to be prepared for dealing with child witnesses. These issues were presented by Laura Rogers, J.D., and Martha Finnegan, M.S.W., of the American Prosecutors Research Institute's National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse at the 9th Annual Colloquium of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC), held June 20-23, 2001, in Washington, D.C. Rogers, a former Deputy District Attorney in San Diego, and Finnegan, a former Kids in Court Coordinator and forensic interview specialist at Children's Hospital Center for Child Protection in San Diego, used their experience in the field to explain how to prepare children and child abuse professionals for court.

In explaining a child's view of court, Rogers and Finnegan presented survey results from a class of third graders, which produced funny, but highly inaccurate definitions of terms such as bailiff, jury, defendant, and prosecutor. This lack of understanding of the process can create court-related stress in young victims. Other contributing stressors to the child include fear of public exposure, multiple interviews, testifying multiple times, facing a defendant, potentially harsh cross-examination, sequestration of supportive witnesses, and concurrent out-of-home placement. The goals of court preparation are:

  • To reduce the stress level in the child witness
  • To help the child understand the nature and seriousness of the proceedings
  • To minimize the likelihood that the child will suffer negative court-related harm
  • To improve the child's ability to answer questions in court in the most accurate, complete, and truthful manner
  • To maximize the child's ability to be perceived as a credible witness.

Besides being familiar with the players, terminology, and court process, the child needs to know his rights in court. Depending on the particular State's statutes, these include the right to a support person and comfort item. They should also be made aware that their "job" in court is tell the truth, rather than "guess" the right answer. The child and non-offending caregiver needs to be kept apprised of court appointments, what to wear, where to wait prior to testifying, where the defendant will sit, and where to look for a "friendly" face, i.e., support person, prosecutor.

In addressing the issue of educating child abuse professionals, Rogers and Finnegan noted that caregivers need to have the child physically and emotionally ready for trial. The victim advocate should help provide the necessary support and serve as liaison between the family and prosecutor's office. The child and family should be given assistance in preparing and reading a victim impact statement, if requested. Prosecutors need to become familiar with literature on child witnesses, cognitive development, linguistic development, and background information on the case.

Rogers and Finnegan explained the different stages of cognitive and linguistic development in children from ages 3 to 18, giving pointers for effectively communicating with the child in court and age appropriate interview questions. They also discussed establishing a conducive courtroom environment, the requirements for closed circuit and video testimony, the role of competency hearings, and the use of interpreters.

Contact information:

Martha Finnegan, M.S.W.
Victim Witness Specialist
Phone: 703-518-4385
Email: martha.finnegan@ndaa-apri.org

Laura Rogers, J.D.
Senior Attorney
Phone: 703-518-4388
Email: laura.rogers@ndaa-apri.org

APRI's National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse
99 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 510
Alexandria, VA 22314
Phone: 703-518-4385
FAX: 703-549-6259
Website: http://www.ndaa-apri.org/apri/programs/ncpca/index.html

Related Items

See the following related articles in these issues of the Children's Bureau Express:

  • "Former Prosecutor Produces Educational Video for Child Witnesses" (September/October 2001)
  • "California Courts Produce Activity Book for Kids" (July 2000)

Visit the website of APRI's National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse (http://www.ndaa-apri.org/apri/programs/ncpca/index.html) for the following related items:

  • Creating and Administering a Kids Court Program
  • Child Development: A Primer for Child Abuse Professionals
  • Facilitating Children's Testimony

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