ANNAPOLIS — Children involved in domestic and sexually abused cases should receive special judicial treatment to make it easier for them to express their feelings in court, advocates said Tuesday in Annapolis.
Eileen King, executive director of Child Justice in Silver Spring, told a story about a case in Virginia where a father abused his son and hired a top-notch attorney.
Although the mother won custody, the abuse later affected her son. As a teenager, he began to use and sell drugs. He’s currently age 20 and sits in jail.
“The results of what children experience are deeply affecting them,” King said. “Now the state is spending resources on keeping this young man incarcerated.”
King testified before a committee organized to offer recommendations and improve Maryland’s court proceedings that involve allegations of domestic violence and child abuse.
The group, chaired by State Secretary John C. Wobensmith, became established through a bill passed in this year’s General Assembly to assess how state courts process allegations of child abuse and domestic violence and analyze scientific research of children in traumatic situations.
One problem discussed in the nearly two-hour session highlighted how parents who report a spouse who abuse their child are either questioned for not reporting the abuse sooner, or not believed.
Sonia Hinds, founder of Barstow Acres, a nonprofit organization in Frederick County, Maryland, that helps at-risk youth and teenagers, offered some tips on how courts can make it easier for children to testify in court.
Some of the suggestions include:
• Child can testify by closed-circuit television to avoid facing perpetrator;
• Judge comes down to a child’s level not wearing black robe;
• Animal-assisted therapy dog; and
• Allow a child to hold a favorite doll, or stuffed animal.
Hinds, also a registered nurse-psychotherapist, emphasized her point by reading a story about a girl name Mandy called “The Girl Who Lost Her Voice.” A doctor, who placed a mirror in front of Mandy as part of therapy to show she’s special, helped Mandy talk to about her abuse and the courage to say it in court.
“Hopefully, the court can help children be at ease [and] not to be traumatized and by providing the simple things that can make a difference,” she said.
Del. Jazz Lewis (D-District 24) of Landover, who serves on the committee, asked what’s the current process for children testifying in court.
“It depends on the judge,” Hinds said. “I don’t think the court would be opposed to a child bringing a doll into the court. The main problem is the aggressiveness of the opposing attorney.”
Nenutzka C. Villamar, chief attorney in the parental defense division for the state’s Public Defender Office, said children can testify by television. In addition, children aren’t always required to testify and a “mandated reporter” such as a counselor, psychologist, or other certified professional can speak on behalf of the child.
Villamar also reminded those in attendance the law must work both ways.
“Most people know what can be done to make the environment safe for the children. However, that needs to be balanced against the parent’s rights to be able to test the allegations against the parent so that a court of law can make a decision that affects the parent’s constitutional right to raise his or her child,” she said. “The consideration must not be limited only to the child’s interest. The interest of the parent also has to be protected.”
The work group plans to meet again Aug. 20.