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Local Michigan lawmaker sponsors bill to protect child victims of abuse

Legislation sponsored by a local lawmaker divides officials on whether it would go far enough to protect victims of child abuse and neglect or if it would harm the accused.

The bill package, which was introduced this year by Rep. Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield and other bipartisan lawmakers, would amend the state’s Child Welfare Act, the Revised Child Welfare Act judiciary and probate code to require videotaping of forensic interviews of children. in child abuse or neglect investigations.

The legislation hopes to allow this video testimony to replace some face-to-face interviews with victims, reducing the number of times they have to relive the trauma.

“(It) would offer some relief to the child who may be in the middle of a hearing or an inquest so they don’t have to be re-victimized over and over again,” she said. .

Hornberger’s bill in the package outlines policies for accessing and storing records and increases penalties for intentionally disclosing to unauthorized persons.

If a court orders that a copy of the videotaped statement be given to the defendant in a criminal case, the bill would require the court to specify who can view the tape, when the tape must be returned, and to indicate the why the tape is given to the defendant.

St. Clair County Chief Assistant District Attorney Stephen Guilliat praised the legislation for including a provision to prevent tapes from being viewed by a defendant beyond what is necessary, or they don’t fall into the wrong hands.

“I think it’s important because if you have a defendant who has done something sexually to a child, you don’t necessarily want that person to have access to it on a regular basis,” Guilliat said.

Prosecutor says legislation should have gone further to protect child victims of abuse and neglect

Under current legislation, recordings could be used in addition to, but not instead of, live testimony in court proceedings.

Guilliat said he would like the legislation to go further and allow these recordings to be played during pre-trial proceedings in place of in-person testimony.

“If we’re going to require a child to be registered, and we’re going to make it compulsory… If you’re going to do that, why not allow that to be used in place at the pre-trial stage of, not in addition, because every time that a child has to talk about it, we are living through the trauma of that child,” Guilliat said.

Guilliat and St. Clair County victims’ rights coordinator Cortney Carl said every time a child tells their story to investigators or in the courtroom, it re-traumatizes them.

“If a child doesn’t have to walk into a courtroom and face someone who has done something horrible to them, obviously it would benefit them not to have to face that.” , Carl said.

Pre-trial proceedings have different standards than a trial, allowing the use of other forms of evidence, so the playback of recordings during pre-trial proceedings would not interfere with the right to a Sixth Amendment accused to face his accuser, Guilliat said. He said he respects a defendant’s right to face his accuser at trial and that a recording would not be appropriate at this stage.

Hornberger said the legislation is drafted the way it should respect a defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights, but the bills could be changed through the legislative process.

“I tend to agree with prosecutors because on an emotional level you don’t want a child to be re-victimized and have to sit on the stand to testify when the person who abused them is sitting there watching him, but you have a right as a citizen to face your accuser,” Hornberger said. “So that’s something that we have to sort out through the legislative process and I hope that We will do it.”

St. Clair County Chief Public Defender Michael Boucher said he objects to the tapes being used in place of in-person testimony during preliminary hearings, such as a review hearing . Testifying in person can be extremely helpful to the defense, as it gives the defense the opportunity to cross-examine the victim.

Cross-examination in pretrial proceedings typically forms the basis of motions to dismiss and other motions that impact how a case is argued, Boucher said.

In criminal sexual conduct cases, there is often a delay in reporting the alleged crime. Because memory can be faulty, the defense must piece together details that can only be gathered during cross-examination, he said.

“While it may be uncomfortable for a child or any trauma victim to have to testify in these situations, I believe that an individual’s due process rights must come first,” Boucher said.

How St. Clair County Protects Child Victims of Abuse and Neglect

Currently, St. Clair County protects child victims by having all interviews conducted at the St. Clair County Child Advocacy Center. The center is a neutral space designed to make children feel comfortable, with size-appropriate furniture, toys and games, said Sherry Archibald, executive director of the Child Abuse and Neglect Council. children of St. Clair County.

Law enforcement, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and other involved agencies are present while a forensic investigator specially trained to work with children conducts an interview with the child at the Child Advocacy Center so the victim doesn’t have to tell their story multiple times. times to multiple agencies, Guilliat said.

From October 1, 2021 to September 30, 2022, the center conducted 202 interviews, which resulted in 99 disclosures of inappropriate acts committed against a child, 65 of which were forwarded to prosecutors. So far, 23 of those disclosures have resulted in prosecutions, but that number is expected to increase as cases from the recent interviews progress through the criminal justice system, Archibald said.

Archibald said St. Clair County began recording audio-video forensic interviews with child abuse victims in June. St. Clair County was one of the last counties to implement the practice as the county wanted to ensure it implemented protective protocols to protect interviews.

So far, the video recordings have been positive, Archibald said, because they provide a completely accurate representation of the victim’s story, without being interpreted as someone’s notes would. She said statistics show that cases with recorded video-audio interviews result in a plea deal more often than those without, sparing the child the trauma of testifying at trial.

Boucher said he supports recording the Child Advocacy Center interviews. The ability to see a child’s statement at the time of presentation could be extremely helpful for a defendant to determine how they wish to proceed with their defence.

“There are probably people in jail right now, or largely because they haven’t had a chance to see this child being interviewed at the (Child Advocacy Center) or other comparable offices throughout the world. ‘State,’ Boucher said. “And I think that’s an important part of defense, to see what that kid says, how he says it, what words he uses.”

The victims’ rights office also works to keep children as comfortable as possible during the criminal process, Carl said. The children enter the courtroom before hearings with Carl and a St. Clair County prosecutor and sit in the witness box and practice before the hearing. That way they know what to expect and can feel more comfortable in the courtroom, Carl said.

The Victims Rights Office also has Bruin, a golden retriever who sits with children and comforts them as they testify.

“We do what we can but obviously we can never eliminate everything for the victims,” Carl said.

Contact Laura Fitzgerald at (810) 941-7072 or [email protected]

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