Protecting the rights and welfare of children remains one of the highest priorities for the United States Department of Justice. Exploitation of a child, in any form, may have serve and traumatic physical and emotional effects on that child. The relationship between child victims and their perpetrator(s) are often characterized by physical violence, threats of violence, emotional manipulation, abusive sexual relations, psychological dependency and/or substance abuse.
For these reasons, the legal system can be a traumatic experience for a child. For example, testifying in court can re-victimize a child by causing them to re-live the experience of their exploitation and abuse. In more serve cases, a child may be reluctant to testify due to fear of harm onto them or their family by the predator(s) involved.
Recognizing this reality, the Department of Justice strives to use the resources and tools available to protect children subjected to the legal system. Substantial progress was made to protect the rights and privacy of child victims and witnesses by the enactment of 18 U.S.C § 3509. This statute provides federal prosecutors with various tools that can be used to lessen the potential harm occasioned a child when having to relive traumatic events:
Alternatives to Courtroom Testimony
Under certain circumstances, a court may permit a child's testimony to be taken by a two-way closed circuit television or may permit taking the deposition of a child victim/witness pre-trial. These provisions protect a child by not having to physically appear in an intimidating courtroom in front of potentially numerous people, typically including the perpetrator. See 18 U.S.C. § 3509(b)(1) and (2).
Protecting the Identity of Child Victims/Witnesses
Title 18 U.S.C. § 3509(d)(1) provides for the confidentiality of information about child witnesses. It does this by mandating 1) that all documents containing the name or any other identifying information about a child be kept in a secure place and 2) prohibiting the disclosure of any of those documents. These provisions can, in part, be complied with by filing documents under seal and/or requesting a protective order under § 3509(d)(2) & (3). In addition, these mandates are applicable to all law enforcement, government employees or their agents as well as court personnel, the defendant, defendant's employees and members of the jury.
Use of Multi-Disciplinary Child Abuse Teams
A multi-disciplinary team consists of dedicated professional representing many facets of the government and private sectors including police officers, prosecutors, medical professionals, caseworkers and therapists. They act in concert to provide a comprehensive approach to responding to the many needs of victimized children as well as working to prevent any further trauma to the victim, for example by minimizing the number of interviews a child is subjected to. Law enforcement is encouraged to utilize multi-disciplinary child abuse teams when reasonably available. See 18 U.S.C. § 3509(g).
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q. Can the courtroom be "closed" when my child testifies?
A. Maybe. In some compelling circumstances, the court may order the courtroom closed by prohibiting any person who lacks a direct interest in the case, including members of the press, from being present when a child testifies. Before a court may do so - it must first find that an open courtroom would cause "substantial psychological harm to the child" or the child would otherwise be unable to effectively communicate. See 18 U.S.C. § 3509(e).
Q. If my child is a victim/witness, who advocates for the interest of my child?
A. In some circumstances, the court may appoint a "guardian ad litem." A "guardian ad litem" is someone who represents the best interests of your child. A "guardian ad litem" is permitted to attend all judicial proceedings in which your child is required to participate including depositions, hearings and the actual trial. It is the guardian's responsibility to make recommendations to the court that serve the best interests or welfare of your child. See 18 U.S.C. § 3509(h).
Q. May I accompany and remain with my child while my child testifies?
A. Your child does have the right to be accompanied by an adult attendant, not otherwise involved in the case, who is there to emotionally support your child. This may include being able to remain in close physical contact, including holding your child's hand or permitting your child to sit on the attendant's lap. See 18 U.S.C. § 3509(i).