Baltimore police, prosecutors seek help from child witnesses to crime

As Baltimore endures record violence, city police and prosecutors are turning to an unlikely source to unlock crime scene clues: children.

The Police Department and state's attorney's office will announce Monday that they are partnering with trained interviewers at the Baltimore Child Abuse Center to question children who have witnessed violence or other crimes. The idea is both to help children deal with the trauma and to solve the crimes.

"Children witnesses oftentimes suffer first-hand violence," said Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby. "The post-traumatic stress, the depression, attachment issues ... If we don't try to channel this in a productive way, it can be detrimental."

But the children are also potentially valuable witnesses in a city where 130 people have been killed this year and violent crime is surging, officials say.

Law enforcement officials have long worked with the child abuse center to solve or prosecute cases of sexual abuse. Now they are hoping to rely on the center more often to carefully extract information from children on a wider range of crimes.

Detectives in the Police Department's family crimes unit, who investigate domestic violence, moved this year to the center at 2300 N. Charles Street in Old Goucher, joining the child abuse unit. Additionally, the center's staff is doing more forensic interviews. A $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice is being used to hire a specialized therapist and other new staff members to work with children, train prosecutors and conduct outreach at Baltimore schools.

Already, some children are brought to the center within minutes of witnessing a homicide or being rescued from a sex trafficking ring. Others come weeks or months later, after they've confided in a loved one at bedtime or bath time, or shared their experience with a teacher or other trusted adult.

They're greeted in the waiting room by colorful murals, toys, books and child-sized furniture. Then they're escorted to rooms where specialists guide them through a forensic interview to capture details of their experience.

"This is a place that doesn't look like a hospital or government office or police station, but is meant to be bright and cheery," said Adam Rosenberg, the center's longtime director. He points out wooden butterflies hanging from the ceiling that were decorated by children. Every day, he says, he hears them singing "Let It Go" from Disney's "Frozen."

"While they're here, they are just being kids," he said.

The center — which served more than 1,000 children last year — started opening its doors 24 hours a day in 2010 and has steadily added services for youths caught up in domestic violence, trafficking, pornography and other crimes. The center first aided police in a homicide investigation about three years ago.

Mosby said the child abuse center is critical to her office's ability to prosecute cases. But the Baltimore state's attorney's office did not have data on the number of cases the center assists on or the outcome of prosecutions involving child witnesses.

The city's top prosecutor said she will measure the partnership's success by the children reached, the resources kids and their families connect with and the number of people trained.

"We want the number of services that we're providing to these children and their families to increase," Mosby said. "We want to see less delinquent behavior. At the end of the day, we try to get to these young people before they become a part" of the criminal justice system.

Rosenberg estimates that half of the homicides in Baltimore have child witnesses. Nearly all children who work with the state's attorney's office are first seen in the child abuse center.

More than 800 such centers operate across the country. In Baltimore, every child who visits the center can see a doctor for a routine medical review or exam. The center provides yoga, art therapy, referrals for psychiatric help and trainings for camp counselors, teachers, coaches and a variety of people who interact with children.

But key to the center's work is the forensic interview, Rosenberg said.

The interviewers sit one-on-one with the children in cozy, pastel-colored rooms. They ask for details about the violence the children encountered. They use a digital white board that allows children to draw what they remember from crime scenes.

A camera hidden in the wall captures the exchange and sends a feed to a room where officers, prosecutors and social workers watch. The forensic interviewers wear earpieces that allow the officers and others to communicate with them.

The interviewers know very little about a case before an interview begins. That helps them preserve their neutrality in the case and ask open-ended questions that facilitate dialogue.

On a recent day, 13 children were scheduled for exams, screenings and forensic interviews. Two sisters and their brother came with their mother to be screened for sexually transmitted diseases tied to a suspected abuse case. The littlest ones wore special diapers to collect urine samples while "Dora the Explorer" played on the television screen.

One of the little girls, age 2, sat on her mother's lap while they looked at the butterflies hanging from the ceiling.

"Look up," the mother said. "Butterflies. Awwww, look how pretty!"

Capt. Steve Hohman, commander of the special investigations section for the Baltimore police, said detectives rely on the interviews to help draw out details from victims, whose recall and ability to process situations may be affected by the violence they witnessed.

"They are specifically trained to interview juveniles and children victims in every way — from the way the room is set up to the support materials down to the questions and the way they ask them," Hohman said.

Many of the crimes detectives in the special investigations section work on involve little physical evidence, so the interview is often the crux of the case, Hohman said. Using the center's resources also frees detectives to pursue other leads, he said.

Leigh Goodmark, a professor at University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, said the steps the center takes to work with child victims and witnesses are essential for the criminal justice process. Child witnesses are received by juries differently than adults, but their contributions are every bit as valuable, she said.

"They are more than capable witnesses," Goodmark said.

She said there's sometimes concern that a child witness for the prosecution was coached by police or prosecutors, or that their recollection was tainted by leading questions in an interview.

The forensic interviews facilitated at the center are open-ended and conducted by a third party without a stake in the outcome of the case, which lends credibility, she said.

"'Can you tell me about what happened yesterday' is very different than asking, 'What did your father do to you yesterday or did somebody hurt you yesterday,'" Goodmark said.

Rosenberg said he hopes the center can help heal families. It conducted 577 forensic interviews and risk assessments last fiscal year, 499 medical examinations and provided support services for 304.

"There are kids who are experiencing a lot of trauma, and if we do that right, if we respond correctly and get these children help, we will build a better city a generation from now," Rosenberg said.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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