Two years ago, my daughters, ages 6 and 8, were forced to experience a trauma no child should endure.
A family friend brutally murdered their father, beating in his head with his own guitar with my little girls in the home. Hours later, once officers felt they had gathered enough information, I took the girls away and told them that their father was dead.
But that was only the beginning of their nightmare. In the months to come, my daughters encountered a justice system with seemingly little regard for their mental well-being in the quest for a conviction.
Fortunately, Gov. Brown signed Senate Bill 176 on Aug. 10. This new law will protect child witnesses who testify. But it should be only a first step in a re-envisioning of our justice system to better account for the perspectives and needs of child survivors.
My family’s story is a microcosm of mindsets and policies that must change. Soon after their father was murdered, it became clear that prosecutors wanted my youngest daughter to testify against the man accused of the crime.
I was reluctant. Having a degree in victimology, I knew of the damaging psychological effects on a child who would have to face the perpetrator of the crime.
If my daughter was to testify in court, I asked for possible concessions to help her feel safe — that a partition be used in court to shield her, that she testify in private chambers or via closed-circuit television, or that the defendant be removed from the room. All of these requests were denied.
So I refused to let her testify. My maternal instincts would not allow my baby to sit in a wooden box 20 feet away from me, with a murderer between us.
I was threatened with jail for this decision — for being too protective of my daughter. Ultimately a family therapist intervened, convincing me that being jailed would be worse for my daughter than testifying.
I felt alone, the only one looking out for the best interest of my daughter. No one seemed to care how having to face the man who murdered her father would impact my daughter.
She was interviewed on tape and given a courtroom tour. But after she experienced anxiety and sleeplessness for the months before the trial, we decided to accept a plea bargain to keep her out of court. (The defendant was sentenced to 12 years in prison.)
This experienced spurred SB 176, authored by Sen. Holly J. Mitchel (D-Los Angeles) and sponsored by Californians for Safety and Justice (a nonprofit with a statewide network of crime survivors that I’m a member of). The bill was supported by other victims’ advocates and the California District Attorney’s Association.
The law will extend accommodations to children who witness crimes and testify in open court, including the use of two-way, closed-circuit television to receive child witness testimony; providing the child with comfort items; and using a physical partition between the child and the defendant.
These accommodations are long overdue.
The number of children called to testify in family court proceedings and serious criminal cases has increased steadily since the 1990s, but the experience can be particularly traumatic for children still recovering from witnessing the crime. (Research shows that the trauma children experience after a crime has a lasting impact, affecting their relationships, mental health, likelihood of developing a substance abuse problem, and more.)
The signing of SB 176 is a victory for survivors but also a lesson on how we can make the emotional and psychological well-being of survivors, particularly children, a priority again.
Our justice system must educate parents of the rights children have as they assist with investigations and trials, but the system must also adopt more research-informed policies so that parents aren’t forced to make the unnecessary choice between justice and re-traumatizing their child.
Jody Ketcheside is deputy regional director of Turning Point of Central California, Inc., providing oversight of housing programs for homeless individuals and families. She lives in Fresno.