Legal Advocacy Efforts to Affect Violence Against Children Essay

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Since children under age 18 frequently must appear in court as witnesses in criminal cases because of their victimization either within or outside of their home, it is important to examine how they interact with the criminal justice system process. For many years, pursuant to federal law, there has been, for example, authority for federal court judges (in federal prosecutions involving crimes against children) to protect the best interests of the child victim or witness. Federal judges or magistrates have authority to appoint a special guardian ad litem for the child during these criminal proceedings. These guardians ad litem are specifically empowered by law to attend all depositions and hearings and the trial of the case; make recommendations to the court concerning the welfare of the child; access all reports, evaluations, and records related to the case (but not privileged attorney work products) to effectively advocate on behalf of the child; and to marshal and coordinate the delivery of resources and special services to their child client. Several states have similar legislation, giving the child victim a legal representative who can, for example, make recommendations to the court, based on the preferences and best interests of the child; help make decisions and/or recommendations regarding the child’s testimony and special protections the child may require during his or her testimony; meet with the child and offer him or her consistent support; and attend hearings and possibly even participate in examining or calling witnesses on the child’s behalf. These federal and state provisions of law are consistent with international guidelines for child victims or witnesses that, subsequent to their drafting, have been endorsed by the United Nations. These include treating child victims or witnesses with respect and protecting their dignity; treating them fairly and without discrimination; helping the courts focus on the child’s best interests; helping ensure prompt aid to children who are traumatized as a result of their victimization; making sure there is due consideration of their right to participate in the case, to express their personal views, and to have those views reflected upon by the judge and prosecutor; protecting the child from undue interference in their lives or invasions of their privacy; having them examined/questioned only by well-trained people and in child-sensitive environments; keeping them and their families informed on the court process and its outcomes; helping ensure speedy case resolutions and reduction of necessary interviews of the child; helping prevent intimidation and threats that may impede a child’s testimony; and addressing the child’s needed medical, social, mental health, and legal needs.

Legal Issues That Arise When Aiding Victimized Children

One of the first issues that is likely to come up for those working with victimized children, especially because many are victimized by abuse within their own homes, is the issue of mandatory reporting. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories have laws that designate specific professions and groups as mandatory reporters of known or suspected child maltreatment. The legal definitions of mandatory reporter, abuse, and neglect, as well as the circumstances under which one must report (e.g., known abuse, suspected abuse, reasonable grounds to suspect, intrafamilial abuse only, or extra familial abuse), vary from state to state. Most states designate health care workers, school personnel, childcare providers, social workers, law enforcement officers, and mental health professionals as mandated reporters. Certain states specify additional categories, such as substance abuse or domestic violence counselors, and some states require all citizens to report. State laws related to the obligations of mandatory reporters can be searched at the Child Welfare Information Gateway Web site. Teenagers under the age of 18 are still children under the law, and thus mandatory reporting requirements still apply. Of course, a dilemma that arises for many professionals who work with child victims of crime is the concern that reporting abuse against a child’s wishes can destroy the trust they are working to establish and may prevent that child from ever trusting or opening up about his or her victimization to another adult. All professionals who work with child victims of crime must know and follow their state’s laws related to mandatory child abuse and neglect reporting. The intent of such laws is to ensure intervention in all known or suspected cases of abuse in order to stop the abuse, prevent the situation from worsening, and help the victim recover. Another legal issue when working with child victims of crime is parental consent and involvement. Laws related to when, for example, a child can consent to his or her own medical or mental health treatment related to their victimization are complex. When working with child victims of crime, it is important to know what the law says regarding parental consent, notification, and involvement when related to that child’s needed services, treatment, and other interventions.

Law-Related Child Victim Interviewing Issues

In the 1980s, as cases involving disclosures of child sexual abuse made by young children became more frequent, there arose a need for social workers, police officers, and others to learn interviewing skills that could better help ensure accuracy in those disclosures and help those children be better witnesses in court, when necessary. Victim-sensitive interviewing began to emerge as a critical special skill, and in 1994, the American Bar Association published the Handbook on Questioning Children: A Linguistic Perspective to help child victim interviewers learn how children acquire and understand language used in the context of such case investigations. Interviewers must understand basic principles of child questioning for forensic purposes, to be able to look for problems in questioning or in the answers children provide, to understand language-related explanations for inconsistencies in children’s testimonies, and so on. The development of Children’s Advocacy Centers has provided, throughout the country, community-based central facilities for interviewing children suspected of being abuse victims and offers a setting for professionals from various agencies (police, child protective services, prosecutor, medical) to do multidisciplinary collaborative work in such cases. The child interviews in such settings are often videotaped, in part to avoid children having to be subjected to multiple repetitive questioning and to maintain evidence that the child’s interview was not contaminated by improperly suggestive questions or other techniques that could negate the effective use of their prior disclosures in court. Building on all this knowledge, a special skill set for forensic interviewers was developed, with training throughout the country available to help ensure that the interview procedures themselves would not jeopardize successful prosecutions of a child’s offender. Such groups as the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse, part of the National District Attorneys Association, have engaged in a nationwide effort to bring high-quality forensic interviewing skills to as many professionals as possible through a program called Finding Words.

Finding Words and other similar programs not only focus on improving interviewer skills, but also on better preparing the child for the in-court experience. Court schools are local programs that also seek to do the latter.

The goal of many prosecutors of crimes against children, however, remains avoiding whenever possible the traditional in-court testimony of young children where their testimony may be severely traumatic. Over the past 25 years, the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of cases has clarified the parameters for use of alternatives to a child’s in-court face-to-face testimony in the presence of the accused. Through admission of out-of-court hearsay disclosures of the child victim, video-recorded interviews or special closed-circuit television live testimony that avoids the child testifying in the close physical proximity to the defendant, prosecutors have been given a set of tools in their arsenal to use in aiding child victims or witnesses, subject to following the rules set forth in the Supreme Court’s decisions and state or federal statutes. Laws and practices also provide, in many states, authority for changing the layout of the courtroom during child testimony, judicially controlled procedures for examination of child witnesses, allowing children to have support persons accompany them to the courtroom during their testimony, permissible use of anatomically detailed dolls and other testimonial aids, and closing the courtroom from the public during child testimony.


  1. American Bar Association. (2002). The child witness in criminal cases: A product of the Task Force on Child Witnesses of the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section. Washington, DC: American Bar Association, Criminal Justice Section.
  2. Finkelhor, D., Cross, T. P., & Cantor, E. N. (2005, December). How the justice system responds to juvenile victims: A comprehensive model. Crimes Against Children Series (Bulletin No. NCJ 210951). Available at
  3. International Bureau for Children’s Rights. (2003). Guidelines on justice for child victims and witnesses of crime. Retrieved from
  4. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2006). United Nations guidelines on justice in matters involving child victims and witnesses of crime: A child-friendly version. Retrieved from
  5. Walker, A. G. (1999). Handbook on questioning children: A linguistic perspective (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: ABA Center on Children and the Law.
  6. Child Welfare Information Gateway:

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