The number of child-abuse and sexual-abuse investigations conducted each year in Utah is staggering.
Many of the investigations don't result in charges being filed. But when charges are filed and the case goes to court, the alleged child/victim may find himself in a world for which his few short years of living have not prepared him.Grethe Peterson got her first inkling of what the child-abuse-protection system, including social services and the legal system, does to a child when she served as a juror in such a case.
Through that experience, she got the idea that something was missing from the broad view that most people have of child abuse and child sexual-abuse cases. The missing piece, she said, was "the impact of the system on the victim."
People understand, she told legislators last week, the importance of protecting the rights of the accused. And the system is geared to try to achieve that.
Peterson saw first-hand some of what the child goes through. Testifying for a criminal trial can make anyone nervous. A child is particularly intimidated.
"The accused is usually an adult, and the system is created for adults," Peterson said.
Even before a case is brought to court, a child goes through a lot. It varies from case to case, but some children may have to tell their stories repeatedly, to social workers, police officers, counselors, attorneys.
Peterson didn't just wish something would change. She got involved. For more than a year, she has been the chairwoman of a statewide task force that examined child sexual abuse to determine what laws and changes might better protect victims.
The task force is composed of people from law enforcement, the court system, social services and education. Never, in the years I have covered task forces, have I seen a more dedicated group. Members attended not only the full task-force meetings, but they read up on the subject, talked to experts, asked questions and met in subcommittees.
The result of that dedication has now been translated into bills that have been presented to the Utah State Legislature. The most important bill, according to task-force members, is one that would create a Children's Justice Center.
The concept is not a new one; several other states already have such centers. There are about 40 in the United States.
The idea is to provide a homelike atmosphere where all the aspects of a child-abuse investigation can be brought together. Centers would be established in Utah, Salt Lake and Weber counties if lawmakers approve SB44, designed by the task force, written by legislative general counsel and sponsored by Sen. Craig A. Peterson, R-Orem.
The center, proponents say, would reduce duplication of efforts, particularly repetitive interviews. Because law enforcement, social workers and others would all operate out of the center, a child would be able to go through his or her stories fewer times.
It would also counter a lack of coordination and cut down on some of the existing delays in moving a case forward. The hardest thing in successfully prosecuting child abuse is building a case. The center, and the spirit of cooperation and support it has engendered among those involved, should help with that.
A number of people spoke in support of the Children's Justice Center, including Barbara Thompson, director of the Division of Family Services, and Salt Lake County Attorney David Yocom.
But the argument that I really related to came from Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Chabries. His department handles just under 400 cases a year. And he said he's seen the faces of children when they are brought into the police department for interviews.
They see officers with guns, which is frightening. (People are always, I think, a little intimidated by "the law." If you don't believe it, think about how you feel when you look in your rearview mirror and see a police car behind you. I get tense, even when I know I'm not doing anything wrong.) I suspect it makes children even more nervous.
"It's very difficult for a child to decide whether he's guilty, when he's taken to a police station," Peterson told members of the human services standing committee.