A bill before Iowa lawmakers would clarify the role of expert testimony in child sex abuse cases, providing consistency and uniformity in what is now an “unclear” law, a prosecutor says.
First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said Iowa law currently gives a judge discretion to decide if an expert can testify at a sex child abuse trial.
Some judges will allow forensic interviewers to testify about how an abuser “grooms” — builds a connection with a child to gain trust — and what symptoms a child might display, such as anger or depression, after being sexually abused.
But other judges will not allow the testimony or will limit it when defense attorneys argue such testimony is “vouching” for the alleged victim.
Maybanks, a member of the legislative committee for the Iowa County Attorneys Association, worked on the proposed bill and said it’s a priority for prosecutors because clear guidelines are needed on what is acceptable expert witness testimony in such cases.
The current law is unclear because the term “victim vouching” was used by the Iowa Supreme Court when it found some expert testimony had crossed the line in a child sex abuse case.
Maybanks argues it’s not vouching for the credibility of a child if an expert explains behaviors or actions in general terms.
“There are frequent attempts being made to exclude even general testimony because the line has not been clearly established by the court,” Maybanks said.
State Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, House floor manager of the bill, and Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, both said county attorneys brought the issue to their attention, asking lawmakers to “codify the current practice.”
“County attorneys were very concerned that if we did not codify it, that it would slowly erode the current practice,” Klein told The Gazette.
Senate Bill 329 has been placed on the legislative calendar and is eligible for debate in both the House and Senate. There hasn't been any opposition to the bill.
Currently, Maybanks said, defense attorneys have been attacking or questioning how children are interviewed about possible sex abuse.
“The interviewers are nothing but professional,” Maybanks said. “It’s preposterous to think these interviewers are leading children to make false accusations, as defense attorneys insinuate.”
If that were the case, there would be more referrals to the county attorney’s office, he said.
The Linn County Attorney’s Office filed about 28 cases involving child sexual abuse in 2018 that involved children age 15 and under and declined to file charges in 27 other cases, he said.
Forensic interviewers with UnityPoint Health-Child Protection Center in Hiawatha conduct one-on-one interviews with a child after a sex abuse complaint is made to the Iowa Department of Human Services and law enforcement.
Julie Kelly, manager of the Child Protection Center, said the center saw about 678 children last year about sexual abuse allegations.
Forensic interviewers present their facts from interviews to law enforcement and Iowa DHS social workers throughout Eastern Iowa, and it’s up to those parties whether to pursue charges, she said.
The video-recorded interviews with children are conducted in a neutral, unbiased way to allow children to say in their own words what happened, Kelly said.
Law enforcement officials watch the interview on a monitor in another room and can call and relay questions to the interviewer, if needed.
Kelly said only a small percentage of the children interviewed don’t tell the truth, and experienced forensic interviewers “can pick up on that.”
Of the center’s four interviewers, three have eight to 10 years experience and one has be doing the interviews for 27 years, Kelly said.
The interviewers, Kelly said, are professionals with master’s degrees in social work. They conduct research that is peer-reviewed. They complete continuing education credits. And they go through mock interviews before being allowed to interview children, she said.
Kelly said she hopes the bill goes forward because an expert’s testimony could help jurors understand that not every child’s behavior is the same, and not every child discloses abuse immediately.
Many children, she said, are not overly emotional during an interview or when they testify. They may be more matter of fact, which may be confusing to some observers. Other children may show typical signs of sexual abuse — acting out, anger and depression.
Jurors also may not understand why children don’t tell someone about the abuse. But it’s not unusual for children to disclose traumatic events months or years after they happened and to be able to provide more details over time.
It’s also difficult to understand why a child might recant an allegation, Kelly said. There are many reasons, such as the abuser may have threatened the child, saying their family will be hurt or that the child will be removed from the home if they tell.
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