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Allegheny County could tape interviews with kids

| Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 8:42 a.m.

Children in Allegheny County who talk with forensic interviewers about being sexually abused soon could do so on camera.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. wrote in a letter this week to the county's two child advocacy centers that he now would support the idea of videotaping those interviews they do.

The letter makes clear he will leave the decision to the directors of A Child's Place at Mercy and the Child Advocacy Center at Children's Hospital, independent agencies that collaborate with Zappala's office to provide evidence in abuse cases.

Joan Mills, manager of A Child's Place, was thrilled to see the letter.

"More and more interviewers come out saying, 'I wish that had been preserved because that child will never say it like that again and I can't write it like that,' '' said Mills, who long has wanted to videotape interviews for court cases. "As great as our forensic interviewers are at taking down notes, you still don't see it and hear it."

Westmoreland County also uses the services of the Mercy experts.

"I would not be opposed to reviewing the issue with an eye towards allowing them to be videotaped," District Attorney John Peck said.

Peck said there is a persuasive argument to be made to have the interviews recorded: It could be beneficial for juries to see young victims tell their stories.

Jack Heneks, district attorney for Fayette County, said the county does not videotape forensic interviews of children of sexual abuse and has no plans at this time to do so.

"We don't do that with any crime victims, or with defendants, either," Heneks said. "We do not tape at this point."

Forensic interviews take place when authorities suspect someone abused a child. Interviewers ask non-leading questions to try to determine what happened and take notes on the child's responses. Money from the state Commission on Crime and Delinquency and the county Department of Human Services pays for forensic interviews.

Though it is standard practice nationwide to videotape such interviews, Allegheny and Westmoreland counties have not done so.

Allegheny County district attorney spokesman Mike Manko would not say why Zappala now is open to videotaping the interviews or why the office was against the practice.

"It gives the prosecutor a good look at what the child says happened closer in time to when it actually happened than if we were down the road at trial," said Richard Long, executive director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. "At a trial, the defense may want to challenge if there were suggestions made to the child, that type of thing, so you have a video record there to show exactly how the interview transpired."

Kevin Rua, a forensic interviewer at A Child's Place, said he gave a presentation last month to others involved in child abuse cases on the problems with relying solely on notes. He cited a 2000 study that found that in 20 recorded cases, interviewers who took notes missed 25 percent of the substantive details of the abuse.

"The best argument for videotaping is it records exactly what happens," Rua said.

Ninety percent of child advocacy centers in the country videotape forensic interviews, according to the National Children's Alliance, the accrediting body for the centers. In Pennsylvania, 14 of 21 centers videotape their interviews, and more plan to do so, according to the state chapter of the alliance.

Long said one concern could be whether the presence of a camera changes how the child might behave or how forthcoming he or she is. He said he has also heard of problems stemming from when the child discloses more details after an interview has been taped.

"Now you have the statement that's taped, but it doesn't have all the information that came out later," Long said. "That can create an issue for the prosecution."

Defense attorney David S. Shrager said he supports taping interviews because they could show inconsistencies between what was said at the interview and the child's testimony later, or whether the interviewer influenced the child's statements.

"When you deal with very young children, they can be subject so easily to suggestibility," he said. "If the questioner in a forensic interview suggests wrongdoing or suggest answers, it's very, very easy for a child to adopt that testimony through the suggestive techniques of the questioner."

Mills said she expects A Child's Place to begin planning for how to record interviews. The chief of the Child Advocacy Center at Children's Hospital was unavailable for comment.

"We can probably move forward, but nothing happens quickly," Mills said.

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