Child Witnesses in Criminal Court: Enhancing the Process
Kim Harper, PhD, University of Windsor, Rosemary Cassano, PhD, University of Windsor, and Larry Wilson, LLM, University of Windsor.
The purpose of this research was to explore from the perspectives of child witnesses, their supportive caregivers, and service providers what was helpful and unhelpful regarding preparation and support children and families received from the service system before, during, and after the child testified in Criminal Court. Interviews explored the process of court preparation and support; the impact of the court experience on child witnesses and family members; what was needed to help them through the process of testifying; personal and systemic barriers; and how they thought the system could be improved. The ultimate aim was to enhance the services provided. Methods: Qualitative, open-ended interviews were used to explore experiences of the children and their caregivers. Although a guide was developed to focus the interview on the areas of interest, an informal style of conversation was used to create comfort and encourage depth. The process of preparing child witnesses for Criminal Court also was explored through interviews with crown attorneys, police officers, judges, and staff of organizations involved in supporting child witnesses through the Criminal Court process. Interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. Initially, each transcript was read in full for meaning and understanding, memos were made, and the authors met to establish beginning categories. In order to ensure consistency in coding, the primary author and two trained research assistants individually coded two transcripts, then met to compare coding until there was agreement about all categories and themes. This was repeated at regular intervals during the coding process. Otherwise, transcripts were coded independently. As a final check for accuracy, participants were sent an outline of the themes and were asked for comments. A face-to-face meeting was held with younger children to review the summary of the themes. Results: Eight children (8 to 16 years of age) and eight caregivers from seven families, and 14 service providers were interviewed. Categories were developed regarding the pre-court, trial, and post-court processes experienced by children and their families. Primary themes included the importance of interdisciplinary coordination to enhance the child's comfort level; assessing the child's ability to provide testimony; assessing the supports needed by the child and family throughout the process; understanding the need for sensitivity on the part of judges, crown attorneys, and defense lawyers to the child's abilities and consequences of testifying; and understanding the difficulties related to cultural issues. Recommendations regarding necessary changes in practice and policy were developed. Implications: Few studies have evaluated the process of testifying in court from the perspectives of professionals and caregivers and fewer have examined the actual experiences of children who are required to testify. This research highlights the need for developing interdisciplinary teams, training court personnel and support workers about children's issues, and developing and implementing practice initiatives and policy changes that will enhance the abilities of children to testify honestly and accurately. Social workers can play a primary role in enhancing the system through generating coordination across organizations, training court and support personnel, implementing service innovations, and advocating for policy changes.