New facility would bring child victim services closer to home
February 17, 2017
It's never easy for investigators to ask victims of abuse difficult questions about their experience. Cases involving children and teens are even more delicate, and without the proper training and facilities, investigators can risk re-traumatizing victims — or having their interviews picked apart in court.
That's prompted local advocacy groups, law enforcement agencies and the county government to work on establishing a child advocacy center, or CAC, where certified forensic interviewers would be able to get the facts of a case in a nurturing, child-friendly environment.
Not only is that better for kids and their families, organizers say, but it also can lead to stronger criminal cases and more convictions.
Currently, the closest such facilities are in Arvada and Glenwood Springs, leaving a broad swath of the High Country underserved.
"Evidence shows that these are the best way to respond to child sexual abuse," said Nicole Bortot, child welfare manager for the county's Human Services Department. "We do the best we can, but more often than not we're asking people to drive to Denver or Glenwood, and that's a lot to ask in an extremely difficult time."
One of the only alternatives is to have interviews conducted by uniformed police officers, which can make children feel as though they've done something wrong or are somehow at fault.
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"The idea is to have a safe, comfortable environment for children who've been victims or witnesses to sexual assault," District Attorney Bruce Brown said. "For children, it's sometimes an intimidating experience to go to a police station."
Last October, Bortot and the county Human Services Department started convening local stakeholders on the project. They've settled on a name — Treetop — but still need to find a location and fundraise.
"We work with people who have experienced trauma, and many times those folks have families with children who have also been abused, and there's a gap there," said Rob Murphy, executive director of Summit Advocates for Victims of Sexual Assault. "We knew right away this was something we wanted to be involved with."
While Advocates does have people with some relevant training, it isn't quite enough to be able to handle this kind of work locally, Murphy said.
CACs are designed to feel like therapist's offices, and they typically include mental health and counseling staff. Certified child forensic interviewers talk to victims and are trained to follow specific protocols that help ensure they aren't re-traumatized.
Another key aspect of interviewing kids, and one with potentially enormous implications in court, is ensuring they aren't being unintentionally led to provide particular answers.
"Kids can be pretty suggestible, and kids want to please adults," said Blythe Chapman, executive director of the River Bridge child advocacy center in Glenwood Springs.
River Bridge has already taken several cases from Summit County this year and is advising the Treetop group on how to proceed in establishing a local CAC.
"It can be difficult to get facts from children," she explained. "Basically what happens is, without even knowing you're doing it, you're leading them to say what they think you want to hear."
That can undo criminal cases, as defense attorneys will often seize upon the credibility of a child's testimony based on how it was obtained.
"What we've found is that investigators who also have to do a forensic interview can have a hard time on the stand," Chapman said. "The defense can pick them apart. The great thing about having people that only do interviews is they can really focus on making sure they will stand up in court."
There are several different models for training child forensic interviewers, but they generally entail several rounds of instruction with practice interviews interspersed between them.
The Treetop group currently has two people lined up to undergo the training, one of whom is a Breckenridge police officer. They hope to start fundraising after finding a suitable location, which will give them an idea of how much money is needed.
Brown said the center would serve all four counties of Colorado's Fifth Judicial District — Clear Creek, Eagle, Lake and Summit — in addition to serving Park and Grand counties.
"I do feel like our department is seeing more of these cases," said Bortot. "We want to have a place that's closer and that makes something so tragic — something that's the worst time in someone's life — as comfortable as possible."
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