Handle with Care: How to talk to child-assault victims
by Gary Hartog
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When I entered the dirty apartment complex, it reminded me of the housing projects we used to chase suspects through when I was a young deputy. Kids played with a tennis ball and a stick, while teenage boys and tattooed young men stood leaning against a wall watching me enter their self-claimed territory. The smell of someone cooking something filled the courtyard’s hot, humid air. Although I wore a suit with a tie, they knew I was a cop and wondered what I was doing in their area.
I knocked on an apartment door covered with dirty smudges and heard the thundering sounds of several people running to the door. As the door rapidly swung open, three children, none over the age of 10, stood asking if I was the cop who was there to talk with their sister. Within seconds the children’s mother appeared and directed the kids back to the TV so she could talk with me.
I’d gone to the apartment to begin the investigation of a reported sexual assault of a 9-year-old girl. Two days prior, the child’s mother arrived home early from shopping and caught her husband sodomizing her young daughter in the bedroom. The mother did everything right from that point on. She told her husband to get out of the apartment, got a neighbor to stay with her other children and took her daughter immediately to the emergency ward, where she called to report the attack.
As a first responder, this is not a call you want to go to—I’m sure most of us would feel much more comfortable handling a hot call in progress than dealing with this little girl and possibly a hysterical, angry parent. But a responder with a plan can be just as effective as the person who first arrives at a hot call and broadcasts initial crime information that leads to the suspect’s identification and capture.
I’ve received specialized training in handling child abuse cases, and one example used by the instructor always sticks with me when I talk with child victims. I was in a class of 30 law enforcement officers, few of whom I was acquainted with. By the second day of training, I had met the people who sat next to me and was comfortable talking with them as we sat in the classroom and during our breaks. For the first exercise of the day, our instructor directed us to partner up with the person sitting next to us and talk in great detail of our last sexual experience.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I thought of what I would have to reveal about the intimate relationship that I shared with my wife of 30 years. I thought, “I am an adult and a professional, so I should be able to do this.” Just as I turned to see the flushed face of the female investigator sitting next to me, the instructor announced the first exercise was now over. I think everyone in the room let out a collective sigh of relief. He explained the purpose of the exercise was to give us some sort of an idea what a child victim will feel like when we ask them to explain what happened to them.
So, how can we lessen their anxiety as we glean from them the vital information we need to help hold the suspect accountable? As a first responder, you are the person who can either give this child some comfort or possibly cause them to shut down when they need to talk about the assault. Here are some of the things I have found that have aided me while handling these fragile little people.
First, they need to like you. I certainly never would have told the investigator sitting next to me in class my intimate details if I didn’t think she was a nice person. You need to put away that tough crime-fighter look and mentality, and turn into a caring friend. Remember, you are trying to get information from probably the only eyewitness willing to talk about the case. What they tell you can either put this suspect away for a long time or let him walk so he can find another victim. And be assured, if he walks, he will find another victim before he is caught again.
Take your time and make a connection on a subject you both enjoy. Spend some time talking about kid things—school, other friends, likes and dislikes, etc. As officers, we tend to shield our personal lives so no one we work with gets too close to us. This is the time to lower that guard and allow the child to see the real person inside the uniform. One topic of conversation that helps me connect is my pets. I have two dogs and a cat, and I carry a picture of each and tell a funny little story about them. When I finish with my stories, the child usually wants to tell me about their pet, or to hear more about mine. Now we have something in common, and I can’t be all bad if I like animals. Remember, they may have been brought up to believe police are mean people, and this is your opportunity to right that wrong.
When you are ready to start talking about what happened to them, make sure everyone leaves the room because the child will tell you things they will not tell their parents. For example, there are no consequences for the child if they tell you the abuse has been going on for some time, but if they tell their parent that, the parent might become upset with them for not disclosing the information when it first occurred.
Make sure they think you are comfortable in the room where you interview them. For instance, don’t complain about the conditions of cleanliness if the victim is comfortable with it. When I interviewed the 9-year-old girl who had been sodomized, we sat on her mother’s bed. There were roaches on the walls, and cereal was scattered on top of the bed’s blankets. I figured my suit was probably due for a dry cleaning anyway, so I just sat down on the bed with her and began our conversation. (As I interviewed the girl, I also found out it was the same room where she was attacked over the past four years. It probably was not a good idea to sit in that room, but it was the only room in the apartment where we could have privacy from the victim’s other siblings.)
Get down to their level. When your supervisor calls you into his office and tells you to close the door, chances are he is not going to give you compliments. If the victim is seated on a chair, sit across from them on a chair of similar size, and try not to tower over them. Do not allow any items of furniture to separate the space between you and the victim. Furniture can act as a shield, which could prevent them from telling you all of the details of the assault.
Again, take your time. As you begin your interview, forget about other calls that may be waiting. You are collecting information about a crime many of us believe is the most heinous any person can do to another. Let the child explain in their terms what happened to them, and then prepare a report that’s as detailed as possible. The smallest bits of information are often what make it possible for the reader to visualize the assault.
Reassure the victim they did nothing wrong. You can help start this child’s healing when it comes to their thinking about their responsibility for what happened. Tell the child they are not in trouble for what happened and that their actions did nothing to contribute to what happened to them. They need to hear this many times before they will begin to believe it.
Don’t tell the parents the details of the assault. They already know the general information and are blaming themselves for the assault; they don’t need more information to make them feel worse.
In my case, the suspect fled to another state where he hid with relatives until they heard what he had done and notified law enforcement of his whereabouts. He was arrested and extradited for trial, at which he offered no defense but hoped he had drawn a liberal judge for sentencing. He’s now serving a 28-year sentence for his crimes.
When I first met with my victim, she sucked her thumb and was obviously withdrawn. A year later when the suspect was serving his time, the victim and her mother stopped by my office to talk with me. The young girl had broken her thumb-sucking habit and had begun receiving very good grades in school for the first time in her life. Your next call for service on a child-assault report may end this way, but much of that depends on how you get started on the call you hope you never receive.
Gary Hartog is a 19-year veteran of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and has worked as a detective for 10 years. For the past 31⁄2 years, he’s been assigned to the Child Abuse Detail, focusing exclusively on physical and sexual assault of children.