Family of Alleged Child Sex Assault Victim Doesn't Want Her to Testify
(NILES, Mich.) -- The grandfather of a 6-year-old girl who was allegedly sexually assaulted by a 67-year-old man has argued she will be further traumatized by testifying at a trial this week in Berrien County Court in Michigan, and his concerns have been echoed by those involved in the trial. "There's many, many strange people, there's a judge up on a stand, it's an extremely intense and strange environment and you're talking about something that is so important," local social worker Libby Christianson told ABC affiliate WBND.
It's hard enough for adults to testify in court, she said.
"To do that to a child, I think could really compound the trauma they've already experienced," Christianson said.
Jury selection began Tuesday, and according to prosecuting attorney Michael Sepic, unless there are problems, the girl will testify.
"This case is like a thousand others," Sepic told ABC News. "None of us wants our children to have to testify, but I think the grandfather had hopes it would not actually go to trial. It's a necessary evil of the system when you are dealing with kid cases."
Luis Medina, a friend of the girl's grandfather, has been charged with sexually assaulting the girl. Her name was withheld for privacy reasons and the victim's grandfather has not been identified.
Sepic alleges that the assault happened when the little girl, whose family is from neighboring Indiana, was staying overnight with her grandparents on a boat that was moored in a marina on Lake Michigan.
Medina's lawyer, Brian Berger, was unavailable for comment because he was in court Tuesday, but a spokesman at his law office said Medina has denied the allegations of abuse. Court papers were unavailable Tuesday.
Sepic said Michigan law provides for special courtroom arrangements so a child victim does not have to face her alleged assailant.
"The child did testify at a preliminary evaluation some weeks ago and had no difficulties," he said. "If the child goes up on the witness stand at the trial and will not answer questions, then there is an alternate statute provided for that."
Research over the decades shows that more sexual abuse cases are coming to light and children are increasingly being admitted as witnesses in court proceedings, but there are no national statistics on how many.
A Bureau of Justice Statistics report shows 1.6 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 17 have been victims of rape/sexual assault.
In one study published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1993, New York child witness expert Stephen J. Ceci estimated that as many as 100,000 children end up participating in family court or criminal justice proceedings in the state of New York alone.
"A very large number of kids join the court every day all over the U.S.," said Ceci, who is professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University. "The number is quite high."
"There has been a lot of research looking at the impact of testimony in open court by children," Ceci told ABC News. "Studies find it is stressful for kids, but it doesn't seem to have any long-term damaging effects. When followed up six to 12 months later, the kids who testified were matched up with kids who didn't and they seemed similar on mental health tests."
"They also feel better for having had their day in court -- the biggest studies say that," he said. "They felt like even if the jury went against them and the judge went against them, kids say they felt better for having told honestly what happened to them."
The problem, according to Ceci, is that by its nature, sexual assault is a "very private act" and if a child is not available to testify against the assailant, the case is rarely prosecuted. "There is never a third party witnessing it."
But without child witnesses, assailants often go on to repeat the crimes, sometimes against the same victims, said Ceci.
"Because both sides want to win, having a child on the stand isn't easy," he said. "Defense attorneys can confuse a child, harass a child and create conditions so in the closing arguments the child's testimony looks inconsistent. It's the same for the prosecution."
One of the ways courts make it less stressful on children is to shield them by putting a barrier with a one-way screen between the child victim and the defendant so the jury and those in the courtroom can see the testimony, but the child cannot.
"A lot of defense attorneys don't like that," said Ceci. "To make a one-way screen, you put a spotlight on it and it looks like the glare of the police headlight and makes a spectacle and easier to convict. It makes the defendant look like he is on display and doesn't taint the child's demeanor."
Sometimes courts use closed-circuit television in a judge's chambers so the jury can hear testimony.
"None of these things are ideal," said Ceci. "There is no getting around the fact that it's very stressful. Ask anyone. Even for young adults. You have to go and tell strangers, with a man in black robes high up with a gavel about these very intimate things."
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