Experts: Separate children from the accused
THERE are simply too many opportunities for things to go wrong if a child witness or victim remains in the custody of an accused during a criminal trial.
According to criminologist and psychologist Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat, generally, the separation is in the best interest of the child victim and witness, even if the adult accused is a close family member.
“The accused adult may use the lack of separation to browbeat, physically harm, psychologically harm, intimidate, and coerce the child in such a way that may affect the proceedings.
“This is because the accused adult would likely blame the child for his or her criminal actions and seek ways to belittle or reduce the child’s importance as a witness, or suffering as a victim,” she explains.
For the children, a court case may drag on before a judgment is made and as such, there may be psychological implications on these child witnesses.
“On one hand, they will gain a better understanding of the criminal justice system. But on the other, children may be subjected to pressure, harassment, intimidation, misleading questioning in and outside court by lawyers and also the suspects in the case.
“In many cases, children feel as if they are the accused instead of being the victim or witness,” Dr Geshina laments.
Matters become tricky if the suspect is a key family member, as it erodes family relationships by fostering guilt, anxiety, doubt and distress between family members.
“In many instances, the child is often blamed for disrupting family harmony despite the fact that the suspect is more likely the cause,” she adds.
The court proceedings can take a toll on the child, in terms of the child’s right to privacy, being forced to relive the trauma as a crime witness repeatedly and lengthy court examinations.
“These things may neglect the child’s need to rest and raise levels of exhaustion. It’s also not appropriate to treat the child like an adult. Research findings have also shown that children often appear in court not understanding proceedings, the roles of the various parties and their own role within this setting.
“In summary, there is a lot of evidence on children’s accounts of being traumatised by their court appearances,” she concludes.
To ensure the child is comfortable in giving evidence, Dr Geshina says the environment shouldn’t have the need to see or interact with the accused adult.
Neither should the child be faced with other adults whose collective attention is on the child.
“A child’s comfort is not solely linked to the physical environment but also having the presence of people whom the child trusts or having familiar things in the immediate vicinity.
“A relaxed environment in a storytelling or role-playing mode is preferable than the more restrictive environment, that is the current norm,” she says.
Children should also be given ageappropriate information about court proceedings so that they are better prepared.
“That will reduce their anxiety or fear due to facing an unfamiliar situation or environment,” she suggests.
Consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist Datuk Dr Lai Fong Hwa agrees that child safety comes first but notes that sometimes, matters can get complicated.
“It’s not easy to simply separate a child from his or her alleged perpetrator.
“It’s complicated because there have been cases of false allegations of abuse by parties. But every allegation has to be taken seriously,” he says, adding that the child witness or victim in an abuse case should be under the protection of a welfare officer.
As for whether a child is susceptible to being influenced in their testimonies, Dr Lai says often times, children want to do what their parents tell them to do.
“Children are children. They cannot be interviewed with the same stringent protocols used for adults.
“Perhaps more personnel can be trained to use better methods in getting children to open up,” he adds.
But to prevent children from suffering emotional trauma in the court process, Dr Lai points out that they need to be supported by a counsellor.
“If you leave them alone and make them feel like they are incriminating their own family members, it will be another problem.
“Children need to be supported when they go through the court proceedings,” he says.
Calling for action: Dr Geshina and Dr Lai believe more should be done to protect child witnesses and victims.