Esther Mikowski, Psychologist at the Brazilian Court of Justice of Sergipe, explains how the statement of sexual violence by children and teenagers to the court can be less traumatic.
By Kika Salvi
The listening methodology developed by Childhood Brazil prevents sexual violence suffered or witnessed by minors from having to be recounted and relived several times in the judicial process. What was the standard procedure, and what has changed with the Special Testimony?
Unfortunately, I can't say how it “was”, because in many places it's still this way. The child is involved in the judicial process when she is a witness or victim of sexual violence. In most Brazilian cities, she is heard in a generalist police station, where the chief or clerk who takes the testimony does not have specialized training to deal with children.
Why is specialization so important?
You have to deal with children at different stages of cognitive development, with different language skills, you have to deal with the family… For that, you should have a specialized training. Dealing with children should be a choice. Of course, today, training is mandatory in for judges, both at the beginning of their careers and updating training, and the Special Testimony is a law. We hope that from this point on, this child care will be a little better.
Is there a minimum age for a child to be able to testify?
No, but in the case of Special Testimony, we work with an age group from four years old. Nowadays, even when the witness is a child, we have the possibility of not having the aggressor present, the law gives that prerogative.
What has changed with this listening methodology?
The greatest advantage is the child not being in the common interview room. In addition, the interview is done in a language appropriate for the child's age, which is very important, knowing how to adapt the language to the stage of development. I've seen a judge addressing five-year-olds as "Madam"… Very intimidating. You have to use her language, that makes her a little more comfortable. I can't say it's better, but it sure is less bad. In the past, this method was called “harmless testimony”. I don't think it's harmless, I don't think it's "special", but I think it's less bad.
What are the concrete changes of the Special Testimony in relation to the traditional?
The child no longer goes to the traditional courtroom. She goes to another, more welcoming room, where the interview is conducted by a single person [the psychologist who specializes in listening to children]. She knows she is being filmed, and the audio and video recording is used in all instances where the child needs to be heard, without the child having to repeat the story over and over again. Only I listen to the prosecutor's and judge's questions, and I translate into an appropriate language for the child's age. Nowadays, it is recommended that the questions be asked in a block, and not all at once. This tires the child less.
*Illustration taken from the Childhood Brazil website
The family is no longer present, then?
No. The moment before the statement, when they arrive at the forum, I go with the family to a separate room, to find out the context of the violence. We want to know what the family has to say about it.
What about in cases where the child cannot express the abuse they have suffered?
Sometimes the child is unable to speak, due to a lack of verbal skills. Sometimes she has some mental disorder, or emotional issue, and often she doesn't say anything. I need to understand the context. According to the Brazilian forensic interview protocol, we have to understand if the child knows how to narrate and differentiate lived facts from current facts, because when they don't have this ability, they can be induced, or reproduce something they have heard.
Is it common for the victim to lie to protect the abuser?
Most cases of sexual abuse of children and adolescents are intra familial. When the aggressor is present during the child's testimony, the child tends to protect him. One of the problems with child abuse cases is time. The Special Testimony is for the child to be heard only once. It's one thing what she says in the heat of the moment, it's another thing when her father is in prison, when there is no food in the house. Sometimes the child changes the statement, she says she doesn't remember. I don't see it as a lie; I understand that by protecting someone, she is protecting herself.
"Many times the child has no idea what was happening. It is the adult who names it. It is very common for reports of sexual abuse to increase after sex education lectures at schools, or when someone talks about it on TV"
Is the child able to react to sexual abuse?
Sometimes lawyers ask why she didn't scream. Because she couldn't! Most victims are paralysed, they freeze. And if the child is very small and understands this as affection, how will she react? Often she is needy, doesn't have attention, and when sexual abuse happens, it comes as affection. It causes a strangeness, but it is not clear to her what that strangeness is. It is very complicated. If she doesn't understand that, who's going to report it?
And when she understands, and tells someone, she is typically discredited.
Yea! Nobody wants to believe that this happens. No one doubts about other crimes, but about sexual abuse everyone has doubts, they ask the same thing over and over again. If the counsellor understands that it's a lie, he won't report it. If the school principal thinks it's a lie, she won't report it. Many people write letters about the good nature of the abuser, for example. This is a shame! But it's still accepted as evidence by the defence, and it has nothing to do with it — behind closed doors people are different.
"We don't suspect the child when she says that her little friend hit her, but if it's abuse, it's in doubt. "Are you sure? But are you really sure?" It's the only crime the victim has to prove that she has suffered it"
What can be done for it to change?
There needs to be a change in three axes: in culture, in professional training and in the creation of more public policies aimed at children. For something to improve, we need to talk more about child sexual abuse, to say that it exists. And we have to listen to the smallest things that children have to say. Children are treated as objects. Teenagers, too. How many kids have tried to talk about it and were not taken seriously? Violence against them will not end, but since it happens and will continue to happen, we have to be more prepared to care for them. We need better trained professionals, adequate spaces and a warm listening. In order not to create more violence against them — the institutional violence.