Advocating for Children in the Court System

Rosie’s Law: Vulnerable
Witnesses in the
David A. Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP
Clinical Director, Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie
Faculty Associate, Johns Hopkins University
The Courtroom Poses Psychological
Risks for the Child-Victim
• “Indeed, if one set out intentionally to
design a system for provoking symptoms
of posttraumatic stress disorder, it might
look very much like a court of
law”(Herman, 2003, p.159; also see
Thoman, 2014).
Conflicts between Child-Victim
Needs and Requirements of the
Legal System
• “Victims need an opportunity to tell their stories
in their own way, in a setting of their choice; the
court requires them to respond to a set of yes-no
questions that break down any personal attempt
to construct a coherent and meaningful
narrative” (Herman, 2003, p. 160).
Conflict of Needs (continued)
• “Victims often need to control or limit their
exposure to specific reminders of the
trauma; the court requires them to relive
the experience by directly confronting the
perpetrator” (Herman, 2003, p. 160)
Children in the Legal System
• “Child sexual abuse (CSA) is by far the most likely
cause of children’s becoming involved as
witnesses with criminal courts” (Goodman, 2005,
p. 873).
• Abused children are most at risk when testifying
because the legal process itself is a traumatic
reminder (Saxe, Ellis, & Kaplow, 2009, p. 81).
Child Witnesses and the
Confrontation Clause
• Thomas D. Lyon, J.D., Ph.D., Chair in Law and Psychology
at the University of Southern California and his co-author
Julia A. Dente, J.D. (2012, p. 1181) argue that courts
should hold that defendants have forfeited their
constitutional rights (Crawford Supreme Court Decision in
2004) to confront their accuser if they exploited a child’s
vulnerabilities (e.g. fear and intimidation) such that they
reasonably anticipate that the child would be unavailable
to testify.
Criminal Convictions Overturned
• Lyons and Dente (2012) report that many cases
of criminal convictions around the country have
been overturned because children’s out-of-court
statements were admitted after they failed to
testify. “These cases include allegations of sexual
abuse, physical abuse, and domestic violence,
the types of cases in which child witnesses are
often called to testify” (p. 1183).
A Specific Example of an
Overturned Conviction
• In State vs. Pitt reported in Lyon and Dente (2012, p.
1188), a 4-year-old victim disclosed sexual abuse to her
mother. She made consistent statements to a physician,
a psychologist, and a forensic interviewer in a videotaped
interview. The physician found physical evidence of
abuse. She also disclosed that she had witnessed the
sexual abuse of her 5-year old cousin by the defendant.
The girls were too upset and frightened to testify at the
trial. The videotaped interviews of both girls were
admitted. The conviction was overturned on appeal
because the interviews were testimonial hearsay.
Impact of the Crawford Decision
• The Crawford decision has made it difficult
to prosecute cases in which the child
witness initially reported the crime to a
state representative but later is too afraid,
intimidated, or traumatized to testify
(Lyons & Dente, 2012, p. 1189-1190).
The Dynamics of Sexual Abuse
• Studies of incarcerated adult sexual offenders
reveal they carefully select and target their
victims beforehand based on perceived
vulnerabilities. Perpetrators exploit the
vulnerabilities, escalate the abuse over time, and
cajole and threaten children into continued
silence (Crenshaw, et al., 1986; Leclerc et al.,
Studies of Perpetrators
• They look for the most vulnerable children;
• Perpetrators claim a special ability to identify vulnerable
children (Conte, et al., 1989);
49% of perpetrators (usually family members or family
friends who have private access to the child) stated they
targeted children with low self-confidence and selfesteem (Elliott et al., 1995);
Target “a child with family problems”; without close
supervision; and the perpetrator is almost always in a
position of trust and authority (Beauregard et al., 2007);
Typically groom the victim, befriend the victim, offering
love and attention, sometimes gifts before any physical
contact is attempted (Leclerc et al., 2009).
The Dynamics of Silencing-The
Silent Bond
• Often the child is threatened never to tell and
being spared the threatened harm creates a
“silent bond” with compelling force behind it.
Breaking the “silent bond” is a frightening and
often terrifying experience (Crenshaw et al.,
1986; Crenshaw & Mordock, 2004).
• DARVO stands for "Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and
Offender." The perpetrator or offender may Deny the
behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and
Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the
perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true
victim into an alleged offender. This occurs, for instance,
when an actually guilty perpetrator assumes the role of
"falsely accused" and attacks the accuser's credibility or
even blames the accuser of being the perpetrator of a
false accusation (Freyd, 1997).
The Need for Trauma Sensitive
• The very vulnerabilities originally exploited deliberately
by the perpetrator can expose a child witness/victim in
the court system to further traumatization. The
intimidating conditions of testifying in open court with
the defendant present often triggers trauma memories,
leads to dissociation, loss of ability to process
information, to remember, and in some cases to retraumatization. Courthouse Dogs are one
accommodation for vulnerable witnesses that does not
violate the constitutional right of the defendant to
confront their accuser.

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