A child who is a victim of, or witness to, a crime has already undergone a traumatic experience. Parents and guardians have good reason to be concerned about their child experiencing more trauma during the criminal investigation, which often begins with a police interview.
This article briefly explains when and how police may interview child victims and witnesses, what options parents have, and what laws protect the rights of child victims.
Police are free to approach and question any child who may have witnessed or been the victim of a crime, just as they can contact and interview an adult. Police can question a child without a parent present and are not typically required to obtain permission from a parent before questioning the child.
However, if a parent is present when the police approach the child or police ask permission in advance, a parent can refuse to allow the child to be interviewed. A lawyer (hired by the parent) also can refuse an interview on a child's behalf.
Children themselves can refuse to be questioned and can also request that a lawyer or a parent be present during any questioning. If police begin to question the child and the child asks for a parent, the police should stop and allow the child to contact their parent.
Parents might be hesitant to allow their child to talk to police about a crime for many reasons. As a parent, you might be concerned that police questioning and being part of a police investigation or criminal case could have a traumatic effect on your child. In some situations, a parent might worry about someone retaliating against the child. If the crime was violent and recent, many parents will focus on keeping their child calm and safe and would prefer to not further upset the child with a police interview.
Most of the time, parents have the right to make choices for their child regarding police interviews and testifying or cooperating in a criminal case. If your child is in counseling and the counselor agrees that a police interview could traumatize or otherwise harm your child, the police and prosecutor's office probably will respect your wishes, but this is not automatic or guaranteed in every case.
In certain cases or circumstances, the police may think it is your legal obligation as a parent to cooperate with an investigation. If a stepparent is suspected of improper behavior with your child, for instance, the police and other authorities may find it suspicious if you don't make your child available for interviews. Police could make a referral to child protective services if they feel you are protecting someone else and not acting in your child's best interests, which is your legal duty. The police also might threaten you with criminal charges such as obstructing a police investigation or child neglect (for failing to pursue criminal charges against an offender who victimized your child).
If a child has witnessed or been a victim of a crime, the police need to be careful about how they talk to and question the child. Interviewing or interrogation can be traumatic and might cause the child to shut down and stop sharing information. Questioning by an authority figure or any adult also can influence a child's memory or interpretation of events, or even what he or she says about an event.
The police must view any person with information about a crime as a possible witness at trial. If the person with information is a child, the police don't want to do anything that might cause that child to no longer be willing to talk to police or authorities about the crime. Police also don't want to conduct the interview in any way that might damage the child's credibility at trial. For instance, a defense attorney might argue that the form of questioning in an interview influenced a child witness and made her testimony so unreliable that the child should not be allowed to testify.
If police need to question a child about suspected or alleged physical or sexual abuse, or if the child witnessed a very traumatic event, police normally refer the interview to professionals or an agency that has facilities and equipment designed specifically for child interviews. Many communities now have child advocacy centers, where professional forensic interviewers (with special training) conduct child interviews. These centers offer children a more comfortable and safe environment for the interview, as opposed to a police station.
Several states have special laws that address the rights of child victims and witnesses. These laws may require, for instance, that the child be permitted to have a victim's advocate or another support person present at any interview with the prosecution or police. A number of states require police, child protection, and any other investigatory agencies to coordinate their investigations in order to minimize the number of interviews a child must go through. And, in some, a judge can issue an order that sets a specific limit on the number of interviews.
If you have questions about allowing police to question your child about witnessing or being the victim of a crime, contact an attorney for advice about how to handle the situation. An attorney will know whether you must allow police to interview your child and what safeguards the police must use to avoid traumatizing your child.
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