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Child abuse cases deeply affect investigators, too

February 26, 2018

In cases of child abuse, the impact on the child and his or her family is enormous, but for the law enforcement officers who investigate allegations of abuse, there is impact as well.

“Every case is tough,” says James Haehl, a detective captain with the Clark County, Ind., Sheriff’s Office. “As part of the investigation, we get to know the children. We hear the stories, the details. We can see the effect it has had on them.

“Many of us (detectives and police) are parents ourselves, so these are very personal crimes for us. We have to work extra hard to keep our emotions and assumptions out of it. We have to be fair and impartial and do our best to determine the facts – all the facts – of what is alleged to have happened.”

Most of the cases Haehl works on involve a child that has been sexually abused – the “worst of the worst” cases, he calls them. Typically, he and officers like him receive reports of child sexual assault or abuse from patrol officers, including 911 calls. Most cases aren’t “active” – live cases that are happening at the moment, but they do happen, he said.

In active cases, “we do a preliminary investigation with the child. We gather information and details for our report. We also see if there are any medical needs and if so, take them to Baptist Health in Floyd County, where a sexual assault nurse examiner sees them and helps collect evidence,” said Haehl.

Haehl then works alone or with DCS to set up a forensic interview at the Child Advocacy Center (CAC), a program of Family & Children’s Place, which has CAC offices in Southern Indiana and Louisville. The CAC provides a safe place for children and families to talk about the abuse, for officials to investigate, and for therapists to help start the recovery process.

The forensic interview is a structured conversation between the child and a professionally trained interviewer to obtain information that may be helpful in a criminal investigation, assess the child’s safety, obtain information that will either corroborate or refute allegations or suspicions of abuse, and assess the need for medical treatment or psychological care.

The interview is non-judgmental and stresses safety and security for the child. The goal is to prevent any re-trauma or injury. The interviews are recorded digitally – law enforcement and DCS officers may view them live on video from an adjacent room – and provided to prosecutors for consideration for legal action.

“The CAC-gathered information is imperative to our investigation,” says Haehl. “As a detective, I don’t want to interview a suspect without having as much information as I can possibly get, so information collected at the CAC is invaluable to my investigation.

“It gives me details I specifically can ask about to be more precise in the investigation and fact gathering.”

Haehl says that getting to view the actual interview helps, too. “It makes all the difference,” he says.

“I can hear what the child is saying and see his or her emotional state. I can see their body language, hear how they answer questions, and see if they are nervous. I see the raw emotion of the interview and hear first-hand the recollections by the child.

“It’s very hard-core and hard to hear and sit through, but it’s critical to our investigation and contributes to successful prosecutions.”

He likes that the recording is a true and accurate reflection of the interview as well. Often, he says, defense attorneys challenge the child’s emotional state or suggest something was offered or taken out of context, so the video record provides the full and complete story.

“It’s so powerful to just be able to let the video tell the story.  You see the emotion, the child’s face, his or her demeanor. It takes away any and all doubts an attorney can usually raise.”

In a recent case, the defense attorney tried to suppress the video of the forensic interview, Haehl said, “but the judge denied it.” He ruled the video was the most true and accurate record possible, so allowed it to be used.

“It just takes away any question of what the child said or meant – it’s right there on the recording,” says Haehl.

For families, though, reactions to the CAC are mixed. Some, he says, see it as just one more step they have to expose their child to in seeking justice, but others are grateful for the help and for how the CAC may help prove that a crime was committed.

Most appreciate the kindness of the CAC staff and agree it eases stress and burdens during the investigation. Haehl appreciate the kindness as well – this is a hard job and they help make it a little bit easier for me,” he said.

Without the CAC, “we would lose a lot more cases than we do now, and I am dead serious about that,” Haehl says. “The evidence and information the CAC collects is invaluable to our investigation. It fills in blanks we might have and gives us details we otherwise might not know.”

Haehl said his office usually works with the CAC once a week or so.

“That might not sound like a lot when you look at the numbers from Metro Louisville, but it’s a lot to us,” he said. “And the numbers seem to go up from late spring to early summer. We see lots of cases during that time. We hope they slow down or stop, but they don’t seem to.”

The youngest child Haehl worked with that had been abused was four, “but the abuse probably started when they were much younger.” He said. By the time they are four or five, children understand right and wrong, or that something isn’t right, so they are able to communicate what is happening, to talk about it, he added.

Haehl’s law enforcement career stretches 30 years, and he is in his second stint as a detective. He has been an instructor in family violence and child abuse, so he has deep knowledge and understanding of the problems.

“I was blessed with a wonderful childhood. I just don’t know how these children survive. I really don’t,” he says.

For families who go to the CAC, he has some advice: Draw on the support of anyone you can find.”

“One of the sad things is that often, the abuser is a family member – a parent, grandparent, or someone close – so it can make things very difficult. But draw on family you can lean on, or your faith or friends or others. And do all you can to provide stability for your child. He or she needs that most of all – to feel safe, protected.”

Time with therapists is important and helpful, too, he added, to healing, but stability and structure have to be there. If the child has good sessions with their therapist but then goes home to an unstable or unsafe situation, the therapy won’t do any good. “The child needs that support everywhere, all the time,” he says.

He also suggests finding a way to trust the system. “It’s working for you and will help provide justice and closure,” he says.” And understand that no matter what happens, their lives are forever changed. They need to gather and hold fast to support and structure, and not just for now, but the rest of their lives.”