The Christchurch Civic Creche Case

News Reports Index

1993 June-Dec

The Press
Thursday, July 15, 1993.

Video Interviews in child abuse cases defended
by Dianne Keenan

The use of videotapes for interviewing children in cases of sexual abuse is an international success, says a Christchurch police investigator. He talks to Dianne Keenan

Much of the attack on the present system of investigating child abuse results from its effectiveness, says Roy Mitchell, head of the Christchurch police child-abuse unit.

Groups, whose members include convicted child abusers and suspects, have slammed the present system of basing a prosecution on a videotaped interview with a child victim.

Detective Sergeant Roy Mitchell says the vested interest of such groups in damning a system held up as a model in other countries should be exposed.

"Of course they don't like it; it's effective," he says. "The taped interview is the best thing that has ever happened in the interests of justice for children in New Zealand.

"While some may feel the system is against their interests, it's a matter of common sense as to how much credibility you can attach to organisations which include convicted child abusers as members. It's unlikely they would agree that any system that is successful is acceptable."

He accuses the vested interest groups - including Pain (parents against injustice) - of churning out an inaccurate portrayal of the process.

"Of course some of this group feel aggrieved with procedures including matters arising from family and criminal courts," he says.

He is angry that by attacking the investigation system groups are attempting in a "thinly disguised way" to undermine children's credibility.

A comment from a lawyer overhead recently in court was the "final straw" in prompting him to speak out in defence of the investigating procedure.

"It was along the lines of 'fancy so and so being convicted on the word of a child'," says Roy Mitchell.

"If that level of ignorance about the nature of children and the changes to the legislation prevails among someone in the legal fraternity, then it is little wonder that the general public is confused."

As head of investigations into numerous sex and child abuse cases during the last 13 years, Roy Mitchell has faith in children's honesty. His investigations have also left him with no doubts that sexual abuse of children in New Zealand is at an unacceptably high level.

"Before the antagonists start bleating, I don't mean that every utterance from a child should be accepted as gospel or that it will result in an arrest," he says.

Children may lie about breaking a window to get out of trouble. They are less inclined to lie about sexual abuse where they see that disclosure will get them into trouble. It would appear that most children blame themselves for having been abused, and feel guilty.

Critics of the system who accuse children of prejudice, motive, and conspiracy are projecting adult values on children, says Mr Mitchell.

"It is hypocritical. When one child is the victim, it is often argued their evidence cannot be substantiated.

"In every instance where there is more than one child - and particularly if they are known to each other - it is alleged by the suspect, his supporters, or his lawyer that the children must have conspired to be untruthful.

"That response is commonly heard from a suspect. In the end it is the credibility of each individual child that is taken into account."

He questions the motivation that children would have to conspire to give false evidence.
"I'm not saying it's not possible, but the often-stated conspiracy theory is very rarely accepted by a jury as being the motivation for a child to make a complaint."

Roy Mitchell says recent attacks on the investigation system are unbalanced and need redress. He is not surprised that specialist interviewers and the children themselves have been singled out in the latest round of attacks.

He acknowledges that it might "simply not be possible to have a perfect system".

"The interview of the child forms the basis of a prosecution system that is vastly more effective than that of the past," he says.

Critics have presented a distorted view of the procedures, he says, and misrepresented the role of people working in the field.

Most had faced the barrage of criticism in silence, unable to breach court sub-judice requirements or client confidentiality.

"Professionals who work with sexually abused children, including their parents, feel hurt and angry at the one-sided portrayal of child abuse," says Roy Mitchell.

He is confident that the investigation system is a "vast improvement" on the one operating before 1990-91. "All that the new way of dealing with child abuse does is that it allows the young victims to have their credibility tested in a court of law," he says. "It does no more than that.

"Before the videotape regulations, children were not served very well by the system. The rules that applied to adults applied equally to children. Yet their needs and perceptions of the world are different."

The greatest hurdle for a child was confronting the accused - someone they feared - in an "overwhelming" courtroom situation.

Some became so nervous they were incapable of recounting possibly the most traumatic event in their lives.

Video interviews introduced three years ago were a' breakthrough, says Mr Mitchell.


A SPECIALIST interviewer speaks to a child about past experiences on a one-to-one basis in a closed room.

The Crown later applies to have the tape played in court as part of the child's account of what happened. The child must be available to be cross-examined.

Expert witnesses can be called to interpret aspects of the child's evidence.

Roy Mitchell says police preparing the prosecution case are at pains to ensure that the child's evidence meets the requirements prescribed by law. The investigating officer and Gown Prosecutor vet the tape before it goes before the final arbiter, a Judge.

"If it appears a child has been led in an interview, the tape will be inadmissable," says Mr Mitchell, who is aware of the misconceptions about leading questions. A question taken in isolation might appear leading, but not when considered in light of information gained beforehand.

"The interviewers are bound by strict rules on how to elicit information from a child. No group of individuals is more aware of the issue of leading questions and its effect."

The task is difficult. Children perceive events differently. For example, they expect to be led. They may also withdraw part of their statement, dissociate from the abuse by attributing it to someone else, or disclose more to a parent or friend after the taped interview.

Interviewers develop a number of skills and are always mindful of factors such as the coaching of a child by another person, such as a parent.

"The interviewer accepts that procedural constraints placed on them and other factors mean they will only get disclosures in about half their interviews, even though it is likely most of the children they speak to have been abused," says Roy Mitchell.

The interview is not the sole determinant of whether- there is a case to answer, he says. 'It seems that the public might fear that once we get a disclosure from a child, it will inevitably lead to an arrest. We use the interview in the context of other evidence to determine charging a person with abuse.”

The police determine whether there is sufficient evidence to lay charges. However, the decision to proceed with the prosecution rests with the family. Their consent is aJso required for a taped interview and a medical examination of the child by a specialist.

Roy Mitchell denounces allegations that the interviewers are "feminists on a crusade to lead children to disclose abuse. You only have to know these people to realize that these allegations are without foundation and untrue.

"The interviewers are intelligent, balanced professionals who have no hidden agenda. Their aim is to protect children and give them access to the court system.

"In Christchurch we are fortunate to have one of the most capable team of interviewers in the country."

The effectiveness of the investigation process should be measured by the hundreds of children and their families who have been through and are, happy with the system. The views of a dissatisfied minority should be considered in context.

Checks and balances in the system ensure people with a normal healthy, non-sexual relationship with children have nothing to fear from the investigation process, he says.

"In my view those checks and balances effectively cancel any argument put forward that the system works unfairly against the accused."

Such things include the presumption of innocence, the burden and standard of proof, and the rights to remain silent, consult a lawyer, and defend the charge.

The Christchurch child abuse unit investigates about 200 cases of suspected abuse a year. About a third result in prosecution.

"Sometimes we agonise over the decision to prosecute," says Roy Mitchell. "The police are caught between a rock and a hard place. The victim and the supporting family might be unhappy if we don't proceed, and the accused unhappy if we do."

In most cases where police do not proceed, the child’s credibility has not been in question.

Police throughout the country have experienced an upsurge in complaints of historical- abuse - cases where adults report they have been abused as children - after the move to the new system.

"These people have suffered for years with devastating repercussions" says Mr Mitchell. "In many cases they did not report the events when they occurred because the previous investigative and judicial procedures did not give them a fair opportunity to have their credibility assessed. There was also a tendency for adults not to accept allegations of abuse by a child or speak of it."

Roy Mitchell takes issue with claims that the investigating procedure victimises the child and causes confusion.

"Saying children's evidence is confused may be an insidious way of saying they are not credible," he says.

"The interview allows children to, recount the experience. It may not come out in a sequence considered logical to adults, but that does not mean the children are confused."

Roy Mitchell says it is inevitable that any investigative procedure is going to be painful to the child.

He wishes more offenders would acknowledge their crime — if not to the people affected, then to the court.

"We are not out "to hang" these people. In all but the most extreme cases there is a pressing need for offenders to undergo therapy and rehabilitation for which an admission of guilt may be necessary."

Offenders react in a variety of ways when questioned about child abuse.

"Some readily admit to the offence and show genuine remorse. Others admit with gentle persuasion, while the third group deny no matter how strong the evidence is against them.

"Part of this may fee that sexually abusing children is the ultimate taboo. I believe some people would rather admit to a homicide than this offence."


Offenders not sterotypes

It is a misconception for someone to say he or she can tell a child abuser by appearance, says Detective Sergeant Roy Mitchell.

"It has struck me that with some exceptions offenders are very ordinary people."

Many male offenders are married men with their own children, he says.
"Very few express a hatred or desire to hurt their victims.

"In fact many describe their feeling to the children they abuse as a kind of love, albeit distorted."

Offenders, says Mr Mitchell, have ranged in age from teenagers to people in their 80s. They come from many walks of life, and there is also a range of personalities.

In preying on children, they often plan their activities to ease their access to them.

Offenders have included bastions of the church, school teachers, martial arts Instructors and leaders of youth groups.

"These men do a lot to bring discredit on some groups," says Roy Mitchell. "However, the public should not accuse the Instigation or organisation. It's the individual."

Some prosecutions have been brought against women.