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Law enforcement gathers to discuss better ways to handle child sex assault cases

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Pedro Oliveira Jr.
December 14, 2009
— Debra Poole’s son was surprised to find out well into his twenties that he was not allergic to chocolate.

Poole, a professor of psychology at Central Michigan University, used to tell friends that her son was allergic to chocolate because he would sometimes overeat at parties and get undesired gastrointestinal reactions. So Poole came up with a less-embarrassing white lie. The boy played along and ended up convinced he was allergic.


“They can hang on to those ideas,” Poole told a group of Wisconsin professionals at the first Walworth County Multi-Jurisdictional Conference, a gathering of forensic professionals who handle sexual assault cases involving children.


The chocolate incident is an example of a crucial concept in working with young victims. Poole, an expert in child suggestibility, said certain questions can confuse children and lead them to say things they don’t know or aren’t sure about.


Some children, like Poole’s son, will provide specific details about situations they never experienced or fabricate memories of places they never visited. That could make things murky during a sexual assault trial where a young child is the victim and the case’s main witness.


The two-day conference in Lake Geneva attracted about 130 professionals from different facets of law enforcement in Wisconsin, including detectives, district attorneys, forensic interviewers and social workers.


Guest speakers included Walworth County District Attorney Phil Koss, who talked about what prosecutors need to present strong cases against defendants accused of sexually assaulting children.


“There’s often a delay in reporting and lack of physical evidence,” Koss said.


With no DNA evidence or witnesses, prosecutors must rely on accurate interviews conducted by professionals who know how children process information, he said.


“You’ve got to make sure that the interviewer probes for alternative theories,” he added. “They can’t use leading questions, can’t suggest answers. It’s crucial that we work together as a team.”


Developing teamwork is Julie Welch’s specialty. Also a guest speaker at the conference, Welch is the child abuse training director for the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan. Her work includes developing multidisciplinary teams to streamline investigation and prosecution of sexual assault cases.


“The goal of bringing professions together is to make sure that all workers and investigators are trained with the same information to best protect the children involved in these cases,” she said.


“For this particular topic, interviewing kids, all professions should know the same things: How kids develop and how to ask the appropriate questions so they list the best information for us.”


Michigan’s 83 counties are required to have multidisciplinary teams following guidelines from state government.


Wisconsin doesn’t have a statewide system, but Walworth County has adopted the practice. The conference was an effort to introduce the concept to officials in other counties in hopes they would also adopt the system.


“We meet, and we know what each other’s roles are,” Koss said. “We work together as a team so we can minimize the amount of interviews a child goes through and offer a collaborative approach to cases.”



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