Posted May 11, 2017 1:44 PM

Courthouse out to help abused children

By Marilyn Halstead
The Southern Illinoisan writer

Saline County has a history of prosecuting child abuse and neglect cases to the fullest extent of the law.

“Historically, Saline County has been very aggressive in prosecuting child abuse; they are a model for other counties,” Sheryl Woodham of The Guardian Center said.

However, the Saline County Courthouse in Harrisburg was not set up to accommodate young victims who had to testify in those cases.

Saline County State’s Attorney Jayson M. Clark explained last month that young victims of abuse and neglect had to walk past the alleged perpetrators of the abuse to get to the stand to testify.

The waiting area for the courtroom is the lobby. Woodham explained that before the child was called into the courtroom, he or she had to wait in the lobby where the child often would encounter family members who had aligned themselves with the alleged perpetrator.

“Courthouses are not designed for children. They are not designed to be comfortable for anyone. It is important for a child to have a comfortable waiting area,” Woodham said. “If we can distract them and keep them occupied, it is better.”

Woodham and Saline County Sheriff Keith Brown came up with a solution. They would turn an old office used by the sheriff’s office for storage into a child-friendly room that would allow a child to wait in comfort and testify in that same room.

“Trying to get a room is difficult. The court was very gracious because they had storage in the room as well,” Brown said.

Woodham was able to secure funding for equipment and decor in the room from The Poshard Foundation. An anonymous donor provided funds for a table and chairs that have the feel of a home dining room. Volunteers painted the room.

The room has a closed-circuit camera and microphone that link it to the courtroom. When a child needs to testify in court, the judge and attorneys enter the room with the child. Everyone else in the courtroom can view the testimony on the television screen just above the witness box.

First Judicial Circuit Judge Walden E. Morris said before the room was created, the child would go into the jury deliberation room with the judge and they would communicate with the those in the courtroom through their cellphones.

Now, under specific provisions in an Illinois statute, a young child abuse victim can be allowed to testify outside the courtroom.

“If the state’s attorney believes a child under 18 or with a profound disability will suffer emotional or physical stress or distress because of having to be confronted by an alleged perpetrator or that they could not testify, the state’s attorney can file a pretrial motion with the purposes of allowing the child to testify outside the presence of the defendant,” Morris said.

Those statutes have to be balanced against a defendant’s right to be confronted by his accusers as compared to a child’s inability to testify.

The state’s attorney has to call a psychologist, psychiatrist or child welfare professional to prove that facing the alleged perpetrator would cause significant stress before the court can allow the child to testify outside the presence of the defendant.

“It has been a great benefit to Saline County,” Morris said. “The Guardian Center wanted to do this for minor victims, but it has been good for Saline County, too.”

A few years ago, a civil suit was filed that drew attorneys from large cities who wanted to use technology to present their case, and it cost about $50,000 for them to do so. Now, they can present videos and other evidence using the technology installed for abuse cases.

“It’s a big boon to justice if justice is to let these children tell their side of the story,” Morris said.

More often than not, victims are told the perpetrator will kill them if they tell or kill their parents. Woodham said children who are victims of abuse or neglect just want someone to believe their story.

“If we can convince a non-offending parent to believe them, they will go on to be successful,” Woodham said.

“For children whose parents don’t believe, it is another blow,” Brown said.

“It is up to all of use to know what abuse looks like and to follow up when an accusation is made,” Woodham said.

This article was provided by The Associated Press.

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