Getting children to reveal abuse

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  • Monday, 06 Jan 2003

Today,10 police officers begin training on how to videotape interviews of child victims and witnesses.The pressure is on them and their British trainers as they will be in a pilot project which,if successful, will help institutionalise child-friendly courts in Malaysia,SHAILA KOSHY reports. 

Butler: Hopes videotapes of child evidence will be allowed in court in future.

IT started out as a simple request by the Royal Malaysian Police to the British High Commission in 2001 for assistance in how to better interview children. 

That request has grown into a huge project involving the setting up of a police child protection team to manage the video recording suite, a possible review of the Evidence Act by the Attorney-General’s Chambers, child-friendly procedures by the judiciary, a witness support programme for child witnesses by the Welfare Department, and the streamlining of record-keeping in relevant agencies. 

The police force must take the credit for making the move that resulted in the coordination of services previously rendered on ad-hoc basis and by various interested groups. But the driving forces in this whole project continue to be the ever-enthusiastic Datin Fauziah Ramly, director-general in the Prime Minister’s Department – who can twist most bureaucratic arms – and the indefatigable Dr Tony Butler, lead consultant for the Malaysia/Britain project on “Collaborative Action Towards the Preparation of Children for Court Procedures.” 

After Dr Butler approved the use of a house in October for the children’s video recording suite, the Prime Minister’s Department handed the house over to the police last month. The recording equipment, which cost RM150,000, was purchased and installed by the British Government. 

“The video suite comprises two rooms. The first room is set up with a carpet, a settee, and a chair – a child-friendly room very carefully designed for acoustics,” said Dr Butler in an interview. 

Wickham: Will conduct the two-week training on how to better interview children.

“We’re talking about acoustic ceiling, carpets on the floor, double-glazing on the windows and there’s a new wall with fibreglass insulation to keep the sound out because the big issue in recording children’s evidence is not the picture but the sound quality. 

“The second room is the operator’s room where you control the camera and the zoom. You record the interview on videotape and audiotape simultaneously so that the latter can be used for transcribing the interview.” 

Dr Butler, who retired as Chief Constable of Gloucestershire in April 2001, had the national responsibility for child protection matters for 10 years in the UK. 

Detective Inspector Mark Wickham, who is the head of the child protection unit in Avon and Somerset, will conduct the two-week training course. Detective Constable Tony Domaille will assist him. Dr Butler and D/Insp Wickham selected the 10 officers, who will undergo the course, in October. 

How crucial is training before interviewing a child victim or witness with video recording? 

“We’re hoping that such videotapes will be used as evidence in court in future because that’s the process in England. 

“But that will take some time because we will need to convince the criminal justice system that the quality of the interviews is sufficiently high and it is safe to introduce videos as evidence in court,” said Dr Butler. 

“That’s the challenge that Mark faces. He has two weeks to get the officers to that level of skill and knowledge.” 

This is extraordinarily difficult work and the 10 – four men and six women – will be monitored while they practise their skills in the pilot project which has been earmarked for February in the sessions and magistrate’s courts in Kuala Lumpur and Shah Alam. 

So what were the selection criteria?  

“First, the candidates had to be fluent in English because the training is going to be delivered in English,” said D/Insp Wickham. 

“Clearly they all had to be volunteers. It is critical they were not press-ganged (into submitting their names) because of their positions. They have to have a genuine desire to work with children and in a system for protecting children. 

“Third, was whether they had the correct personal skills and attributes to be in a position to make a child feel comfortable with them in such conditions.” 

“All are at a level where they are investigating officers, that is Inspectors or Chief Inspectors. While it is important that they are able speak to children, it is also important that they are in a position to deal with the perpetrators and be involved in the investigation right from the beginning up to the court,” said D/Insp Wickham. 

“One of the key elements of Mark’s training is not interviewing a child until they have done their background work. 

“The interviewer must have as much information as possible about the child, the family and the circumstances of the incident before the interview. 

“We’ve had some tragedies in England where some children have died because we haven’t exchanged information.”  

From his discussions with the police and medical authorities, D/Insp Wickham said the main problem with the existing procedure was that medical examination came first and the police interview generally occurred later with the doctor present. 

“Unless there’s an acute reason for a child to be medically examined, we need to interview the child first.  

“This way, we can often eliminate the need for a medical examination,” he added. 

“It will take time for families and children to understand that the police should be the first point of contact. And it’s only after one or two interviews have been completed will we hope to establish that element of trust.  

“At the course for the police officers, there are also going to be a number of observers present. They will be different key professionals in the criminal justice system from health and social welfare so they can see how these interviews will be conducted and have trust in the system.”  

The second week of the course will be devoted to practical training, said D/Insp Wickham. 

“The most important thing for interviewers to understand from the outset is to try and understand what a child feels in the situation. One of the tactics one might employ would be to tell two of the candidates who don’t know each other to go out of the room and share with each other their most embarrassing sexual experience. You’d find that really uncomfortable to do.  

“The 10 have sufficient interpersonal skills to be good interviewers.” 

“After the training, there will be the monitoring of the quality of their new skills by independents and I’m looking at lawyers to help me. It’s not just about getting the evidence but the integrity of it from the criminal justice point of view.  

What happens when after interviewing an abused child, the information does not point to any particular person as the perpetrator?  

“Generally a child can pinpoint an offender but in some cases the children are too young to do that. But that’s up to the investigation process then to examine every lead,” he said. 

“There are many cases where we don’t even get to speak to the children – according to the (UK) guidelines, five years is the minimum age. 

“We’re often in the UK left with two offenders – say the two carers – and it is very difficult to prove which one of them caused the injury to the child.” 

“We had a case a few years ago where a baby died and the two carers – the father and mother –said nothing. It was quite clear that the death took place when they were in the house yet they said nothing. You couldn’t charge either one of them,” said Dr Butler. 

“The big worry is, as the police and services get better, you’ll get more reports of this. You’ve got to be very clear there are no scare stories about Malaysia going down the tube because all the kids are being abused. That (increase in reports) happens everywhere in the world when the services get better.” 

But British statistics also show that, presented with the video testimony of the child victim, more perpetrators plead guilty. That’s a trend worth looking forward to. 

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