Protecting the children

Program trains detectives to help child victims find the words to describe their abuse


     Four-year-old Christian sat in the precinct playroom. He had been tearful and shaking uncontrollably when his mother brought him in. A few days ago, he'd returned from a visit with his dad, screaming obscenities, pulling down his pants, and walking naked around the house.

     The boy's mother suspected all was not right at her ex-husband's home. She brought her son in to police headquarters and insisted a pediatric sexual assault nurse examine him.

     The colposcope examination revealed a tear in the delicate tissue of the preschooler's anus and what appeared to be bite marks on his buttocks. The nurse bagged the underwear he'd come home in and took swabs of the bite area.

     Now it was the detectives' turn to sort through the evidence to see if they could make a case. Det. Matthew Tanks entered the room and sat at the table, as his partner Det. Sonya Dukmajian observed through the one-way mirror along with the staff psychologist. But Christian remained on the floor, rocking. He didn't even look up as the big guy entered.

     The first words out of Tank's mouth were, "Looks like something happened at your dad's. How many times did he rape you?"

     Outside, Dukmajian shook her head. "I bet the boy doesn't even know what the word rape means," she said to the psychologist.

     "Huh kid? You gonna tell me?" Tanks asked again as he met a wall of resistance. "We know someone hurt you. Who was it?"

     The distraught child pulled his sweatshirt hood over his face and rocked harder.

     As frontline professionals, detectives often deal with child abuse, but as the above example illustrates, unless they are trained and know how to talk to victims these cases may never be built or prosecuted.

     Fortunately, the five-day seminar, Finding Words, exists to train officials in Rapport, Anatomy identification, Touch inquiry, Abuse scenario, and Closure protocol (RATAC), which can be used to interview children not only about sexual abuse but any type of violent crime, neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse or felony animal abuse.

Building rapport

     After Det. Tanks's lack of success, Dukmajian came in, crossed her legs and sat on the floor so that she was eye level with the boy. She waited silently a moment, giving him time to feel comfortable and acknowledge her.

     Dukmajian thought she knew what she was doing, but trained only through her on-the-job observations of others, she still made mistakes.

     When the boy finally turned toward her, she asked, "Was your dad's pee-pee hard or soft?" Clearly the detective was asking if the boy's father had an erection but at his age, Christian was likely thinking about texture and responded "soft."

     Dukmajian started out correctly — sitting at eye level is less intimidating to a child — but she did not take the boy's developmental level into consideration and jumped into the questions without developing a rapport, the first step in the RATAC process. It's vital to develop rapport in the beginning for it is through this process that investigators can assess the child's development and establish a child's competence.

     "One of the biggest mistakes investigators make is assuming kids understand things as adults do," stresses Victor Vieth, a senior attorney with the National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse. "Ask a child 'How many times did it happen?' Even at the age of 12, my daughter does not have a grasp of numbers. She will say, 'It's been a billion times that you did that.' The proper way to ask is to say: 'Did this happen once? More than once?' Ask them to indicate on their hand."

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