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Protecting Children: Children And The Courtroom

Gulf Coast Kid's House

Continuing our series on April as National Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month, WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody sat down with a prosecutor who’s been trying such cases for 15 years.

Ann Patterson is an Assistant State Attorney in Florida’s First Judicial Circuit, having been in that position since 2004 and housed at Gulf Coast Kids’ House in Pensacola. She tells aspiring prosecutors that it takes a certain kind of personality to handle child abuse cases – including the ability to place a check on your emotions.

“You have to process what you’re seeing and what’s happening in a certain way, that you concentrate on the resolution in stopping a bad thing from happening,” said Patterson. “And holding those who are doing these bad things responsible.”

Criminal cases involving children are, for the most part, the same as those involving adults; both types rest on the shoulders of the alleged victim. Patterson says the rules of criminal procedure do not provide special applications to children, regarding proof of crime against someone presumed innocent until proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

“The child has to go to the same courtroom, sit in the same witness stand, [be] cross-examined by the same attorneys who deal with adult cases,” Patterson says. “I can be very difficult for a child [and] they have to be prepared for it and understand what’s going on. And that’s why these cases are extremely challenging to take to trial and proceed through the entire criminal process.”

The first step in preparing a young victim for their time in court is to make sure the child understands what Patterson calls the “moral obligation” to tell the truth. Kids are pretty bright, she says, so that’s usually not a problem.

“Children know the difference between the truth and a lie at a very young age,” says Patterson. “They can indicate that they understand their obligation to tell only what really happened to them. We do have a little, miniature courtroom model here at Kids’ House that we can show the children and given them kind of an idea of what to expect when they go to court.”

Credit Gulf Coast Kid's House
A toy mock-up of a courtroom, to prepare child victims for their time in an actual court.

Under Florida law, there are certain circumstances where a child can testify via close-circuit television, if it’s shown he or she would suffer severe emotional distress by testifying in open court.

“We have done that on occasion, but the problem is, in order to prove that it requires a child to undergo psychological testing,” said Patterson. It is kind of a high burden for that to happen. But, if the children are treated in a supportive way through the process, then they are much more able to testify in court.”

That’s part of the assistance that child victims receive over the duration of the case, through a number of advocacy groups such as Gulf Coast Kids’ House.

“They’re still nervous, they’re still afraid; but because of the existence of a child advocacy center, they have been dealing with professionals that can reassure to them and their family what is going to happen when they go to court,” says Patterson. “And our experience has been that most of the children are able to testify competently in court about what happened to them.”

As with virtually any other criminal case, negotiated pleas – commonly known as “plea bargains” are possible in child abuse cases. Patterson says the outcome may be arranged and then left up to the court to determine the sentence, or the two sides can come up with a sentencing proposal, which the court can either accept or reject.

“The parties conduct discovery; the evidence is then known to both sides and what the law is, is applied to the evidence,” Patterson says. “If the defense is interested, the state will extend – in most cases – an offer to negotiate a plea and a sentence.”

Some of the red flags of suspected child abuse can be: unexplained injuries; changes in behavior, eating and sleeping habits, a fear of going home, and changes in school attendance and performance, among others. 

More information is available at www.gulfcoastkidshouse.org; also at www.cdc.gov, and www.childwelfare.gov.