Rational and Methods for Preparing Children for Success in the Courtroom

Summary: The National Children’s Advocacy Center offers advice on supporting and preparing children to participate in the court process.

Each year approximately 100,000 children testify in the United States either in criminal, civil or juvenile courts. Typically, these children may have been alleged victims of sexual or physical abuse or neglect; witnesses to a violent crime; or subjects in custodial hearings in civil court. As more cases are reported to the authorities and more marriages end in divorce, more children are being called as witnesses. 

Unfortunately, abuse is often difficult to prove; eyewitnesses are uncommon, there is rarely definitive physical evidence, and when it exists, seldom points to a specific perpetrator. Thus the child witness’s testimony is an influential factor for the judge or jury when determining case outcome.

Testifying in court is a difficult process for any witness. This is true even for adults who generally have some knowledge of the legal system and the various roles of most, if not all, of the participants in a hearing or trial. The stress of testifying is intensified when the witness is a child.

Imagine a child in this situation—thrust into a process with adult language, rules and procedures, and repeatedly questioned about abuse or having to testify against one or both parents in a divorce or custody hearing. Pretrial delays, rescheduling and continuances, confronting the accused, harsh cross-examinations, multiple court appearances, and inadequate preparation are also unduly stressful for a child and create significant anxiety and emotional turmoil.

The attorney should understand the multiple challenges faced by children in court. Doing so will help reduce children’s anxiety regarding testifying in court and increase their ability to competently and effectively participate in the courtroom experience

Children often do not understand courtroom procedures and have concerns about their role and the role of the different participants in the court. Attorneys frequently ask questions that are complex and confusing, use legal jargon which to a child is akin to a foreign language, and use language that is developmentally inappropriate. Children commonly have to testify against a parent or family member, whether in a criminal or civil court and they may feel a choice must be made between parents. Children may also feel responsible for the dissolution of the family unit if there are allegations of maltreatment. All of these situations place a high degree of stress on the child, which may decrease her ability to provide accurate and credible testimony.  

Preparing a child for court reduces stress and helps the child be ready for the experience of testifying in court emotionally, physically and mentally. Adequate courtroom preparation can:

  • Improve the child’s ability to answer questions in the most accurate, complete and truthful manner
  • Maximize the child’s ability to be perceived as a credible witness
  • Minimize the likelihood that the child will suffer court-related trauma

Following are some simple suggestions that will assist the child in being prepared for the challenges of testifying:

  • Visit an empty courtroom and explain, using age-appropriate language, who will be in the court and their role in the proceedings
  • Give the child the opportunity to take various perspectives in the courtroom by allowing them to sit at the prosecutor’s and defense counsel’s tables, the judge’s bench and the jury box
  • Allow the child to sit on the witness stand and practice using the microphone
  • Practice answering general questions (not pertaining to the child's case) from the witness stand
  • Teach the child how to respond to confusing, misleading questions and what to do if the child does not know an answer
  • Have the child practice being sworn in (again, using age-appropriate language and if needed, visual tools, which can increase the perceived competency of the child)
  • Explain courtroom-specific behaviors and terms, such as “objection,” “over-ruled,” and “please rise,”
  • Go over the difference between the truth and a lie
  • Give the child a realistic time frame of the court processes
  • Discuss how the child should act on the stand

Court schools have been developed in jurisdictions across the country. In addition, programs such as “Home Court Advantage,” developed by the National Children’s Advocacy Center, can be used for individualized courtroom orientation and preparation.  A child who has attended court school or who has participated in individualized orientation will be better prepared for testifying, which will aid the judge or jury in the ultimate goal of seeking the truth.

 

 

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