When people asked me about my summer (How was work? Did you like what you did?), I found it difficult to provide an adequate account of what I was doing. I spent my summer with the Child Protection Unit at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. The Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs) there form part of the team that investigates and, if appropriate, prosecutes instances of child physical and sexual abuse in Suffolk County, which includes Boston, Revere, Chelsea, and Winthrop. At the Superior Court level almost all of the cases they handle deal with allegations of sexual abuse involving children. To be clear, the following will include a discussion of those cases, and some of it may be difficult to read.
Most people feel uncomfortable talking about rape, and more so when the victim is a child. Child abuse involves unspeakable terrors. How do you explain to someone the process of building a legal case out of the aftermath of tragic events, when a child has their innocence, freedom, and youth violently stripped away? Sometimes I would respond with a platitude: It may be hard work, but it can be fulfilling to feel like you’re helping. But when I ventured a more substantive explanation, I inevitably started with the mirror.
There isn’t much about actual criminal law work that resembles shows like Law & Order or Big Little Lies. The room with the mirror was an exception. When a child makes an allegation of abuse, they are asked to participate in a forensic interview with a professional trained to ask open ended, non-leading questions. The interviews are recorded, so the child is not made to relive their trauma by repeatedly recounting the
acts that someone did to them. The interviewer sits in the room with the child and goes through the story of what happened. A team representing different organizations is also present at the interview. There’s usually a detective, a victim-witness advocate, an ADA, and, if appropriate, an investigator from the Department of Children and Families. Family members and friends are not present at the interview. But because talking to a roomful of adults would be intimidating and ineffective, everyone except the interviewer and child sits in a separate room behind a one-way mirror. The kids know about the mirror and the team sitting behind it, and they are usually invited back to see the separate room when the interview is over.
My first day, I was one of those people behind the mirror. A 13-year-old girl had told a friend, who told a teacher, that her father was raping her at night, in the room she slept in with her younger brothers. We’ll call her Camila. The interview began normally: Camila described who was in her family, who lived in her house, and how her dad hadn’t been around the house for days before she arrived at the interview. When the interviewer asked about why Camila had come in to talk that day, however, her mood shifted. Camila’s affect flattened—she began speaking as if she felt no emotional connection to the words coming out of her mouth. The detective and ADA exchanged a look, and one muttered “shit” under her breath. Camila told the interviewer that what she had told her friend was untrue, it had never happened; her father had not raped her or done anything else that made her feel uncomfortable. All of our heads sank.
A common myth exists about rape allegations, that survivors, for various reasons, make up the stories of their traumas. Maybe they want attention, maybe they want to shield someone else in their lives by deflecting attention. In fact, there is nothing to indicate that rapes are falsely reported at a higher rate than any other crime. The ordeal of bringing experiences of sexual abuse to light is usually miserable. A survivor making their voice heard or seeking justice almost inevitably evokes a host of unpleasant reactions from others, such as doubt, shaming, and blame. The myth of false reporting is a product of a culture that struggles to take seriously the voices of women in any domain, especially when it comes to the repulsive actions taken predominantly by men.
What is much more common is that rape and abuse survivors recant the truths they tell about their experiences because of external and internal pressures. We cannot know for sure, but the most plausible reason why Camila told us her story was a lie is because her mother was upset that her father had been removed from the home after Camila spoke up. By the time of the interview, her father had been out of the house for two weeks. He was likely the major source of family income. Camila’s mother didn’t speak English, was unemployed, possibly without documentation, and likely coached her daughter to take her accusation back so the father could return home. If kids don’t want to talk about their experience of abuse, and there are many reasons why they don’t, then there is not much that can happen with their case. Unfortunately, Camila’s father returned home within a week of her interview. Perpetrators of child sexual abuse target vulnerable children. How much more vulnerable is Camila now that her first cry for help had to go unheeded because circumstances drove her to withdraw the truth about what was happening to her?
That was just my first day. I had always known that things like this happened. But like most people I was detached from the reality that survivors go through. It was wrenching to hear story after story of abuse. Often the best solution was to push the stories out of mind. It helped being surrounded by ADAs, detectives, and advocates who were inspired by the survivor’s pain to do something about it. The inability to provide any help is what made cases like Camila’s hard.
Most of the substantive work the other interns and I did for the Child Protection Unit consisted of reviewing the massive amounts of information that is collected before a case goes to trial. There were forensic interviews, such as the one I described above, that needed to be transcribed so that the ADAs could quickly see inconsistencies in the victim’s story that might be the focus of cross-examination. When someone experiences trauma, their memories store the information in fragments that are not necessarily verbal—they can be visual, olfactory, auditory, or tactile, for example. Trying to render these fragmented memories in words can lead to some variations in a victim’s story, a consequence of the mind’s efforts to protect them from remembering over and over again the worst things they experienced.
There were also entire cell-phone and computer hard drives that needed to be inspected. You’d be surprised how much information your phone remembers. For example, I read over 100,000 text messages sent between a victim and the man who raped her. There was also, of course, legal research to do: Why shouldn’t the defense be able to access this victim’s therapy records? What can we charge this perpetrator with? Is enticement appropriate? The most intruiging work, though, wasn’t the work assigned to the interns.
We were allowed to watch as many trials as we could make it to. Large swaths of a trial can be dull. But there are contentious or emotional moments that, even as an observer, chilled my heart. Of course, not all cases go to trial. Some end in a plea, some with a decision not to prosecute at all. It was impressive watching the ADAs exercise discretion in deciding with which cases to press forward. The most common cases not pursued, so-called “Romeo and Juliet” cases, involve a consensual sexual relationship between teens, one who is below the statutory age of consent and one who is not.
Bringing a child abuse case to trial can be particularly difficult for many reasons, but one is that the victim will have to testify. Sitting on the stand and telling a group of 12 strangers the details of terrible acts, and having those details scrutinized and picked apart through direct and cross examination, is excruciating for anyone. In spite of this, children who get up there display unfathomable courage in telling their stories while facing their abusers. The Boston Globe has a video showing what the experience can be like. One girl asked the judge if she could make the defendant stop staring at her. She persisted through her testimony, and he was found guilty.
The ADA’s direct examination would begin with questions about the child’s background. What grade are you in? Who do you live with? What do you like to do? One girl, we’ll call her Penelope, approached the witness stand with a shy smile masking the tension held within. She appeared almost jovial as she told the jury how excited she was for camp this summer and then to get back to school, even though she didn’t like her summer reading book. Penelope smiled while she talked about how she used to go to her aunt’s house and watch TV, or play with her aunt’s old makeup, or go get ice cream with her uncle, and how sometimes her aunt would go to the store while Penelope was there, leaving her and her uncle alone. “Is there anything that happened at your aunt and uncle’s house that you didn’t like?” Penelope’s smile disappeared, her head sank, and she began crying into her hands. “Can you tell us what happened when your aunt would go to the store?” Penelope told the story of what her uncle did to her through her tears, while the rest of the courtroom held back theirs. She told the jury she just wanted the candy bar he promised her if she kept quiet. He too was found guilty.
As a society, we don’t talk about child sexual abuse, about the exploits that our most vulnerable community members suffer at the hands of individuals expected to cherish them. Our silence will only lead to more victimization. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that one in five adults was molested as children. To combat this societal complacency, the Child Protection Unit has a dedicated Director of Youth Safety and Outreach, who started a campaign, Now You See, to empower
survivors of childhood sexual assault and draw the issue into public view. Once a child’s case is over, whether or not it goes to trial, they have the opportunity to share a piece of their story, along with some advice, and have it placed on a poster along with a picture of their eyes. The Now You See pictures are exhibited around Boston. They were recently on view at City Hall, and invite viewers to briefly stand by the survivors, with the expectation that by having a glimpse of the hope that can grow from devastating acts, we will be able to engage more easily in a conversation about a taboo topic.
The unspeakable terrors that occur daily in our communities behind closed doors demand close attention. Children continue to be victimized, and they deserve lawyers who can manage the agony to bring them justice. Several of the ADAs in the Child Protection Unit are BC Law alumnae who are committed to the school’s mission of educating lawyers who seek social justice. Hoping to one day count myself among them, I am grateful the Child Protection Unit welcomed me this past summer. The sense of loss I felt working on such cases may be best conveyed through the shortest of fictional stories, attributed to Hemingway. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Alex is a 2L & Clough Law Fellow. You can reach him here or at firstname.lastname@example.org.