Getting children to talk about abuse

By By CHRIS ANDERSON

SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) — The girl was sweet, smart, just 9 years old. She had been sexually abused by her stepfather, and her mother had abandoned her to live with the man and his monstrously abhorrent secret.

No one seemed to want Big Red either. A lady found the Labrador mix wandering up Proctor Road one day, the scars on his mangy side mysterious and sad, but there was something wise and gentle about him, too.

When it came time for the girl to give a deposition in the case against her stepfather two years ago, she withdrew and grew frightened and wouldn't talk to anyone about it.

Prosecutor Dawn Buff tried playing a fun game with her. It didn't work. They sat at a kid's table and colored. Not a sound.

Over on the couch, next to some pillows, watching all of this, was Big Red.

He was a proud therapy dog now — among the vehicles prosecutors use to assuage the fears of abused children — but he was scared, too, of elevators.

So scared, in fact, his handler had to hold him in her arms as they rode up to the deposition room that day.

Buff leaned over to the girl and said softly, "I know this is really scary and a lot has gone on, but Red's really scared to be here, too.

"He's afraid of the elevator, but he came because he knew you were going to have to talk about this today. He came to be by you. He knew you needed him."

The girl rose from her chair, walked to the couch, put her arms around Big Red and snuggled up to the gentle brown therapy dog with the scars on his side.

"I almost started to cry," Buff said.

They all moved to the floor and the girl started talking, apprehensively at first, and then saying just enough to send her stepfather to prison for the rest of his life.

_______

Inside the lobby of the Child Protection Center in Sarasota is a large, twisting glass cylinder two stories tall.

Abused children drop marbles down the cylinder, and the little balls slink their way to the bottom, where they all remain clustered like gumballs in a 25-cent machine.

This is to signify to the children that they are not alone.

On the wall inside a medical room at the center is a painting of grass and trees and summertime. Hidden deep in the landscape are ladybugs and grasshoppers.

Abused children are asked to find the hidden insects while lying down on a medical table.

This is to forget they are being examined by a doctor after enduring horrific acts, violations often committed by someone they love.

In one room is a closet full of donated children's clothes and television monitors.

This is where law enforcement officers watch the forensic interviews taking place.

Inside another room is a small kids' table with small kids' chairs and a camera high up in a corner.

This is where Danielle Hughes works.

She is a 34-year-old forensic interviewer, and no one draws squiggly lines with a 5-year-old better than her.

Hughes is called a Child Protection Team case coordinator, one of four on staff at the Child Protection Center.

She interviews children ages 3-12 who may have been abused.

If someone places a call to the Department of Children and Families suspecting abuse, Hughes is among the people who will be called upon to interview the child.

Her interview tape will be given to law enforcement, and the case could be forwarded to the state if the police deem it credible.

Her job is to gather information in a nonthreatening way.

"Can you imagine a 3-year-old talking to a law enforcement officer who has a gun and a badge?" Hughes said. "That's frightening. They don't want to talk about what happened and they don't want to get the perpetrator in trouble."

______

Hughes has interviewed more than 1,000 children during the past 10 years. She has to make them feel comfortable, gain their trust and attempt to obtain crucial information within a narrow timeframe.

As a rule of thumb, she has three minutes to talk to a child for every year of the child's age. That's about the length of a child's attention span. For example, she'll have 15 minutes for a 5-year-old.

Inside the interview room, it's just her and the child — no parents or family. Law enforcement watches on the monitor from another room.

She always points out the camera and the microphone to the child. She wants no surprises.

And she always sits at the little table, at eye level with the child. Buff, the assistant state attorney, often does the same when she conducts depositions.

"We want to eliminate all power so I have no power over that child," Hughes said.

The sessions almost always include Hughes and the child drawing pictures. Hughes likes to draw nondescript squiggling lines, no humans, nothing to remind a child of family.

Buff sometimes plays games or colors during depositions.

"I've done some beautiful work during depositions," she said.

Hughes has several signs she looks for during interviews. If a child is particularly chatty but then suddenly goes silent when the subject of abuse is gently broached, she knows it's likely something has happened.

Sometimes kids wet themselves when they start talking about abuse.

Sometimes they dig their crayons into their paper when the subject comes up.

She also intentionally says one wrong thing during the interview to see if the child catches and corrects the error.

She finds children to be quite reliable, probably more than adults.

"Children's minds aren't sophisticated enough to say a lie and then maintain that lie," she said.

______

Buff was in Alabama a few years ago for an Auburn-Florida football game. She was walking near the famous Toomer's Corner part of Auburn's campus when she wandered into a trinket shop.

She spotted a small medallion inside the store that bore the word "Courage."

When a young child takes the stand in court, Buff will sometimes have them hold the small medallion in their palm. And if another child testifies after them, it'll get passed on. Sometimes parents hold it, too.

Kids will hold rocks, blankets and stuffed animals — anything to put them at ease in court. Rarely, therapy dogs lie next to the children for comfort in the courtroom.

Prior to a child testifying in court, Buff brings him or her in to sit in each seat and become familiar with the setting. Some even swivel around in the judge's chair.

She also shows the children a tape about how the proceedings work.

She never tells the kids what to wear, and does not want to appear as though she is pandering to the jury by, say, making a child wear a cute ribbon in her hair.

She says she never coaches a child on how to act.

"They've got one job and that's to tell the truth," Buff said. "They worry, 'Am I going to say it right?' And I say: 'You don't worry about anything else. It's my job to worry about everything else.' "

_____

There are framed picture of therapy dogs — including Big Red — hanging on a wall at the Child Protection Center, right across the hall from Danielle Hughes' office.

There are also photos of the dogs on the wall in the lobby of the State Attorney's Office in Sarasota.

Hughes began the program that uses dogs to help comfort abused children during depositions and trials. The program is called PAWS.

She began with three dogs. There are now 11. The example of the interaction between Big Red and the 9-year-old girl — and the result it created — is the pinnacle.

"That's it for me," Hughes said. "That's incredible."

Sarasota and Manatee counties may be the only counties in the state that have used dogs to help children in court, she said.

However, the dogs have rarely been used, perhaps only a few times in both counties, according to Buff.

Florida statute allows it, but judges have been hesitant.

"The defense in Sarasota argues that the statute requires we prove the child is going to suffer some emotional harm if we don't have this available to them," Buff said. "The judges seem to feel this should be for only the most extreme circumstances."

If a dog is used, it remains next to the child on the stand, but out of sight of jurors. A dog handler sits nearby.

When a dog is brought in, jurors are instructed to leave the courtroom. They may be told the dog is there, but are not allowed to see it.

If a dog is not used in the courtroom, it will wait outside the door, eager to comfort the child after what was likely a traumatic experience.

"I've been on the stand a few times in my life and it's like an out-of-body experience, it's scary," Buff said. "And then to talk about a sexual experience, specifically 'He touched me here and this is what it felt like and this is what it smelled like and this is what he said to me.'

"And to talk about that in front of strangers and the person who did it, and that person may be somebody you love and you may be getting pressure by someone to not send that person to prison for the rest of their life, that's a lot of pressure to put on a kid."

___

Information from: Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, http://www.heraldtribune.com

©2014 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.