Officials discuss protocol for handling child sexual, physical abuse cases
On Thursday, the last piece of the puzzle was formally put into place. The Walworth County Children's Advocacy Center, which has long been a part of the investigation and prosecution of child sexual and physical abuse, was included in a formal protocol that outlines how the center will work with agencies to solve crimes involving children.
“The significance of today is that we all come together, acknowledge that child abuse is a crime that requires sensitive and respectful interaction with victims, that juries expect that police officers arrive at what the truth is, and that we can do this all on the same page,” said District Attorney Phil Koss, who also chairs the Walworth County Alliance for Children.
The idea behind the Walworth County Children’s Advocacy Center is to have a place with consolidated services where families can report crimes, work with professionals trained to understand children’s needs and get post-traumatic help. The center advocates for children, but its goal is to serve the whole family.
Thursday also was a day to inform jurisdictions of the kinds of services the Children's Advocacy Center can provide. More than 40 Walworth County officials—from social workers to prosecutors to cops—attended the meeting in Lake Geneva. Together they reaffirmed a countywide understanding of the importance of having all facets of law enforcement discuss how to better handle cases.
“We bring everyone together, we get an update on what's new out there, what we learned, and it's a way to bring us all together with all the different jurisdictions and let everyone know that we're in this together,” said Paula Hocking, a forensic interviewer and Children's Advocacy Center coordinator.
One of the advocacy center's main services is child interviews, which are conducted by Hocking.
“When children are being interviewed, the understanding or lack of understanding usually comes from the way an adult asked a question,” said Elkhorn police Capt. Patrick Slattery, who attended the Thursday gathering. “And if you don't ask it in the right way, you may well get a response that you know is not correct.”
The concept is called child suggestibility, which happens when questions confuse children and lead them to say things they don’t know or aren’t sure about.
Last year, Debra Poole, an expert in child suggestibility from Central Michigan University, told a similar group of Walworth County officials that some children 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 main witness, Poole said.
Taking advantage of Hocking's interviewing specialty results in more thorough investigations and gives Koss and his prosecutors a better chance of convicting criminals.
“It's nice to come together and see that we're growing as a professional community,” Hocking said.