Securing Justice For Child Victims Never Guaranteed
Astonishing, just astonishing, were recent events in a Luzerne County courtroom, as reported in The Citizens’ Voice (“Trooper accused of molesting girl mounts sleep defense and judge tosses groping charges against trooper,” April 18). A child bravely and consistently told investigators and the court about how the trooper entered her bed and used sexually charged language and touched her in very intimate ways. This child was deemed “the most credible witness” in recounting the night the trooper ended up in her bed. This observation about the child’s credibility was made by the judge, who then abruptly ended the criminal prosecution. Luzerne County Judge Michael T. Vough unilaterally used his power to undercut the opportunity for a full jury trial, because, as The Citizens’ Voice reported, the trooper’s defense that he was sleeping “paid off.” The judge determined the child’s testimony was so credible that there was “not one scintilla of evidence” that the trooper had committed a “voluntary act.” The judge cited that the child said she thought the trooper may have been sleeping when he was in her bed using sexually charged language and touching her in very intimate ways. Earlier, the judge had barred the jury from being told that the child had also disclosed that she was concerned by the trooper’s alcohol use and actions when he used alcohol. Shockingly, the trial included no testimony from an expert witness about how children process and respond to trauma. An expert witness might have been able to address the type of coping mechanisms a child relies on, during and after traumatic events. Such testimony would have permitted the prosecution, defense or judge to ask questions about whether the child saying that the trooper was asleep when he was talking to her using sexually charged language and touching her in a sexual way may have been part of how a child would cope with trauma. Instead there is now no reversing course in this case, the judge slammed the door shut on any criminal case, even as the child’s trauma won’t be so easily, if ever, resolved. The judge’s acceptance of the sleeping-while-engaged-in-indecent-acts-against-a-child defense may well open the door to other adults offering up a similar defense in the future. This court case illustrates that securing justice for a child victim is very hard and never guaranteed. Justice for child victims proves elusive in spite of laws that require mandated reporters to report suspected child abuse or more child victims being connected to coordinated forensic interviews at a children’s advocacy center. Sometimes the path to healing and justice is denied, because tools intended to reduce child trauma and better balance the scales of justice (e.g., expert witness testimony or a child testifying by means other than face-to-face) are too rarely used in courtrooms across the Commonwealth. Finally and most frustratingly, sometimes a child can be so very brave only to be denied justice by a single person, empowered to make decisions that are so consequential, but not then subject to review or reversal. CATHLEEN PALM is the founder of the Center for Children’s Justice. JENNIFER STORM is a victim advocate for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.