Videotaping Investigative Interviews of Children in Cases of Child Sexual Abuse: One Community's Approach

By Vandervort, Frank E. | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Videotaping Investigative Interviews of Children in Cases of Child Sexual Abuse: One Community's Approach


Vandervort, Frank E., Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


I. INTRODUCTION

Despite recent encouraging signs that child sexual abuse may be on the decline, it remains a critical social problem. (1) Proving child sexual abuse in criminal proceedings is notoriously difficult. (2) Because of a lack of physical or medical evidence in most cases, (3) and because these offenses by their nature typically take place in private, often the statements of the child who is the alleged victim are critically important, and perhaps the only, evidence. (4) Debate about how to capture the courtroom testimony of child witnesses, and its efficacy, has been vigorous for two decades. (5) That debate has been most pointed when child sexual abuse is alleged. (6) Since the mid 1980s, one focus of this debate has been whether investigative interviews with children should be videotaped. (7)

As might be expected given the adversarial nature of our legal system, the debate about videotaping has proceeded primarily from two diametrically-opposed positions. (8) The primary opposition to videotaping has come from prosecutors. (9) Conversely, defense advocates have argued for mandatory videotaping of investigative interviews with children. (10) Indeed, some commentators who are skeptical of children's ability to recall and relate their experiences have argued that virtually every interview of a child by a professional which takes place for any reason should be videotaped. (11) Child advocates have staked out somewhat more nuanced positions on the issue which cautiously endorse the practice of videotaping investigative interviews, but with a number of qualifiers. (12)

Largely absent from this debate, however, has been the broader community's perspective. (13) While prosecutors are said to represent "the people," "the commonwealth," or "the state," in reality their interests may be different from those of the broader community they are charged with protecting. (14) For example, while the sexual abuse of children is a crime in every jurisdiction in the country (15) and a social problem that renders many children's homes unsafe, (16) some prosecutors have expressed the belief that the family court rather than criminal prosecution is the most appropriate means of responding to the phenomenon of intrafamilial child sexual abuse. (17) This attitude may, in part, account for the relatively small percentage of child sexual abuse cases that result in criminal charges. (18)

This article is based upon research conducted by the St. Mary County research group at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, of which the author is a member. It begins by reviewing the arguments on each side of the controversy surrounding the videotaping of investigative interviews of children in child sexual abuse cases. It will then assert that the arguments on either side of this controversy have proceeded from the dichotomous perspectives of the direct participants in the legal system and have created a vacuum that has not adequately considered the interests of the community as a whole in the operation of its legal system. In doing so, it will suggest a number of community interests that are at stake in the operation of the criminal justice system and the videotaping controversy. The Article will explore how the broader community's interests are served by removing the videotaping debate from the vacuum in which it has taken place and reframing the question to ask whether or not to videotape investigative interviews helps advance the community's interests when it is used as part of a broader investigative protocol. In doing so, this Article will focus on research that has been conducted on the protocol utilized in St. Mary County, which has been the subject of several published quantitative studies and is currently the subject of in-depth qualitative study. (19) The Article will conclude by arguing that the community's interests will best be met by using videotaping as one element of a broader protocol for investigating cases of suspected child sexual abuse rather than as the primary investigative tool.

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