(Second in a series.)
It is hard enough for a child who has been sexually assaulted to talk about what happened to a supportive person they know, but the thought of telling the worst story in his or her life to a complete stranger, possibly an officer in uniform, can be outright scary.
Oftentimes shame, or the child’s fear of not being believed – or even being blamed for what happened – can make the thought of coming forward to tell their story excruciating, especially with the prospect of having to tell the story in front of a judge and jury, with the assailant sitting only feet away.
That was the case with Jessica Washburn, who during her childhood years endured escalating forms of sexual assault at the hands of her stepfather, Keith Chandler, who was convicted in April on multiple counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault involving his stepdaughter.
Chandler is appealing his conviction.
Those with long years in law enforcement and the criminal justice system recall that, as recently as 20 years ago, childhood sexual assault survivors would have to tell their story, complete with graphic details, over and over to several people — school counselors, social workers, police officers, and detectives — before the case was even scheduled for trial.
Belknap County Sheriff Mike Moyer handled child sex assault cases when he was a detective on the Laconia police force.
The child would tell their story, perhaps for the first time, to a duty officer and then would have to come in again a day or two later to tell the story to a detective, Moyer said. The training the officers had for conducting such interviews was minimal by today’s standards.
“Holding interviews in a police station can be very scary for a child. It’s a very intimidating place,“ Moyer said.
It was not just the setting that was intimidating; oftentimes it was also the number of times a child had to tell his or her story.
“There would be interviews by police, DCYF, and others,” said Kaitlin Sapack, program coordinator for the Child Advocacy Center in Laconia. “They would be interviewed an average of nine times. It was extremely traumatizing.”
Today, victims are interviewed by police just long enough for authorities to get the basic facts of a case. The main interview is conducted later at one of the state’s Child Advocacy Centers, which are purposely designed to be non-intimidating.
The interview takes place in a small but cozy room furnished with two easy chairs with a coffee table in between. On the table are several fidget toys which victims can handle as a way to lessen stress. On the wall are bright blue, red, yellow and green handprints of other child victims who have previously been interviewed there.
Lauren Noether, the former Belknap County attorney who helped establish the local Child Advocacy Center in the early 2000s, explained that the centers employ a multiprofessional approach to investigate allegations of child abuse.
The victim speaks with an interviewer who is specially trained to ask open-ended, non-leading, empathetic questions using vocabulary that is appropriate for the victim’s age.
“It’s a way to question a child that is not suggestive, that is completely unbiased,” Noether said.
“We want the kid to be comfortable on their terms [talking] about what happened to them,” Sapack said.
The average interview lasts about one hour, but the length can vary from just a few minutes to three hours or more.
“If the kid wants to talk, we’ll let them talk,” Sapack explained.
Though the interviewer was kind and understanding, “It’s truly a terrifying experience,” Washburn said of her CAC interview. “They’re going to poke deep,” she said. “You find yourself talking about things you never thought you’d have to tell anyone.”
She had gone through one CAC interview about three years before, related to another case in which the accused was prosecuted and found not guilty. But the interview about the abuse by her stepfather was more difficult, she said, because the questions “were not just about one occurrence, but multiple occurrences.”
While the child is talking, the interview is streamed live to a separate room in the Child Advocacy Center where authorities involved with the case watch and take notes. Typically watching are police investigators, a person from the state child welfare agency, and a prosecutor from the county attorney’s office. A video copy of the interview is provided to the attorney of the accused.
That interview is critical because it often marks the first time the victim has spoken at length about what happened. It is the first on-the-record conversation about key facts related to the abuse: what happened, where it took place, when it happened, how the child reacted, whether he or she resisted, and what the suspected abuser may have said before, during or after the abuse.
The interview is also vital for another reason: It is the first indication a prosecutor gets on how the victim will come across as a witness, should the case go to trial. Except in the most unusual circumstances, no sex assault case goes to trial unless the victim is willing to testify.
“There’s nothing that is more of a death knell in a case than a bad interview,” Noether said.
“We do not prosecute a sex assault case if the victim doesn’t want to go forward,” Belknap County Attorney Andrew Livernois said, explaining the protocol followed by county attorneys throughout the state.
The victim’s testimony is crucial because rarely are there other firsthand witnesses to sexual assault. If the case goes to trial, the jury will have to decide which story they believe more: the victim’s or the defendant’s.
Jessica Washburn’s interview at the Child Advocacy Center, which took place the day after she was interviewed by Belmont police, lasted longer than most — about three hours.
For Washburn, the interview was not as arduous as the months that led up to the trial.
Most difficult were the delays that occurred in the two years between when Keith Chandler was indicted and when he finally was brought to trial in Belknap County Superior Court this past April.
“The delays hurt,” Jessica said. “I kept thinking, ‘Do you guys not think (about) what I’m going through.’ It was hard to focus. I had nightmares.”
“There are often complicated reasons why a case gets delayed,” Livernois explained.
Sometimes the lawyers — prosecution and defense — ask for more time to review the evidence or consult with witnesses prior to trial. Other times delays occur because the attorneys have a scheduling conflict with another case. Defense attorneys often need additional time to meet with their client in order to prepare a strong defense.
Livernois understands why delays make victim-witnesses like Washburn anxious.
“Once [a victim] has made a decision to come forward to tell their story, the case weighs heavily on them and they want closure,” Livernois said. “The delays cause anxiety and they have problems getting on with their lives.”
Washburn’s decision to come forward to authorities triggered a major disruption of her personal life.
She became estranged from her mother, who she said refused to believe her story that Keith Chandler had assaulted her. She moved in with her father, Sherman Washburn, who she had not spent much time with since she was a little girl.
But she moved forward, she said, because “I wanted to confront someone who had been hurting me for so long.”
Help for victims
Every county attorney’s office has a specially trained person whose job it is to guide victims and/or witnesses through what can seem like the tortuously slow process of criminal justice.
“Even before they get to court, they need help,” said Barbara Belmont, the victim-witness advocate in the Belknap County Attorney’s Office.
As the case proceeds through the various stages of pretrial hearing, status and structuring conferences, and oftentimes motion hearings, Belmont keeps in regular contact with the victims or witnesses — whether by letter, phone call, or email — telling them how the case is proceeding, and whether there have been any developments that might have a bearing on whether they will have to testify.
“We let them know the process,” Belmont said. “Criminal cases are not like they’ve seen on TV. They’re not done in an hour.”
Belmont knows that, although she explains the process in great detail, victims are still thrown off balance by unexpected developments.
“Even though I warned them, it’s still a shock,” Belmont explained.
Sometimes victims find they need therapy to get through the rough spots prior to a trial, but therapy is not an instant-acting remedy.
“It’s hard to go to a therapist and talk about your feelings,” Belmont observed. “It can be overwhelming.”
For the prosecutor, the task of preparing for a child-sex abuse trial can be daunting.
“They’re more difficult to prosecute than homicide cases,” Noether said, because almost always there are no independent witnesses to corroborate the victim’s story. “First you have to prove there was an assault in the first place.” Sex assaults happen in clandestine situations, she said.
The prosecutor needs to meet with the victim prior to the trial to go over their upcoming testimony, and has to prepare that witness in such a way that the defense attorney cannot claim that the victim was coached on what to say and is not testifying as to their best recollection of events.
All the support that victims receive prior to trial is not enough.
“It’s still not comfortable in court for victims,” Noether said. “Sometimes the child freezes on the witness stand.”
Belmont agreed. “Talking in public about this private matter, and talking in front of strangers, it’s tough.”