Why does the Kent County Children’s Assessment Center refuse to record their child forensic interviews?

The Governor’s Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect and the Michigan Department of Human Services have spent nearly 18 years developing a forensic interviewing protocol for children.

The forensic interview protocol provides that “The goal of a forensic interview is to obtain a statement from a child, in a developmentally-sensitive, unbiased, and truth seeking manner, that will support accurate and fair decision-making in the criminal justice and child welfare systems.”

The Governor’s Task Force recommends as a best practice that all forensic interviews of children be video recorded. This is an incredibly important aspect of the forensic interview, because it allows for the accurate and fair decision-making that is outlined as a goal of the forensic interview process. It is important when analyzing a statement of a child, we know whether or not the protocol was actually followed – that questions were asked in a non-leading, unbiased manner, that there was nothing done, intentionally or unintentionally, to influence the child’s statement.

It is also important that we know precisely what the child said during this interview. The difference of a few words can have an impact that destroys a parent, a family, or the children themselves.

The protocol provides that if the interview cannot be video recorded, it should be audio recorded. If it cannot be audio recorded, contemporaneous notes of both the questions being asked and the children’s answers should be taken. No matter what, we should have a word for word rendition of the interview – not merely an inaccurate report summarizing the substance of the interview.

If the goal of the interview is to help get to the truth, then we have to leave room for the possibility that the allegations that the child is making are not true. When you don’t record the interview, you lose the pieces of the child’s interview that might exonerate the person whom they are accusing. This hardly serves the goal of forensic interviewing.

The Kent County Children’s Assessment Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan refuses to follow the forensic interview protocol. Even though they claim to have interviewers with extensive training in the protocol, they refuse to follow one of the very first rules of the protocol – video record the interview. In an age where you can buy a device that can video record for $19.99, there is no excuse for not recording these interviews.

So why does the Kent County CAC refuse to video record? I don’t know the answer. I have heard some excuses when questioning child protection workers and law enforcement about why they refuse to do so. Some say that the CAC is worried about the video getting released to the public. A law enforcement officer recently testified in one of my hearings that the order not to video record came from the Kent County Prosecutor, who presumably doesn’t want to turn over these videos to defense attorneys. No one in the Kent County Prosecutor’s office has confirmed this for me.

What I do know is that none of their excuses hold up. In fact, statistics show that the recording of forensic interviews of children actually result in higher conviction rates. As for releasing the videos, when videos are turned over to lawyers in child protective proceedings and criminal cases, they are subject to a protective order. A lawyer who releases a video without authorization would be risking jail and likely loss of their license for violation of a court order.

I am hopeful that the Kent County CAC will soon be forced to video record their forensic interviews of children. HB 5270, 5271, and 5271 would amend the child protection law, the criminal code, and the juvenile code to mandate the recording of forensic interviews of children in child assessment centers. The fiscal impact of these bills would be negligible.

The Children’s Assessment Center is supposed to be there to help children. It does not help a child to tear apart innocent families, which can easily result from a failure to record a forensic interview.

If you have been accused of child abuse or child sexual assault, and a child assessment center or law enforcement agency has failed to record the interview with the child, contact an experienced Grand Rapids child abuse lawyer at Blanchard Law for a consultation.

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