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Tending to the youngest victims of sexual assault

When sexual assault on a child is alleged, who can that child turn to in order to tell their story?

In the case of Archuleta County’s children, one person is Tonya Hamilton — a specialist in forensic interviewing.

“I come into play when there’s been a report of alleged sexual assault on a child,” Hamilton said. Hamilton’s services focus on alleged victims who are 18 and younger.

Hamilton has served in a variety of roles with the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office over the years, from deputy to fraud investigator to detective.

While Hamilton worked as a detective, the ACSO contracted out forensic interviewing needs because no one in the department was certified — something that made those within the department feel a step behind.

To change that, Hamilton, with the help of Det. Rich Valdez, worked to receive funding through the area’s Violence Prevention Coalition that allowed her to attend training at CornerHouse, a world-renowned training center in Minneapolis.

Valdez said the choice for Hamilton to attend the training was twofold: the ACSO would have a forensic interviewer at its disposal to better address crimes involving children, and Hamilton, whom Valdez said has the right personality and understanding for the job, would learn skills likely to benefit her both now and in the future.

“We just feel like we owe it to the kids,” Valdez said.

A trained person within the department also ensures that interviews and reports will be more consistent than they would be if the department were using multiple outside people when cases arise.

“I really love the fact that one person is doing them and, that way, they’re consistent,” Valdez said.

Hamilton now performs forensic interviews for the ACSO and other area agencies, completing about 25 interviews in the last year, she said. The youngest child Hamilton has interviewed was 3 years old.

In certain situations, the Department of Human Services might still interview the child, Valdez said.

“I like that I have an opportunity to intervene on some level in the trauma that children sometimes experience,” Hamilton said.

“So far, it’s been a great relationship; she’s amazing,” Valdez said, adding, “We couldn’t have chosen a better person for it.”

Now, the ACSO is working to set up a child-friendly interview room, complete with kid-sized furniture and, through another grant, top-notch audio and video equipment.

Valdez hopes the combination of factors will help both children and their families be comfortable during the interview process, and tell their stories without feeling victimized again.

“We want to try to become the agency everyone can come to for help, because of the quality,” Valdez said.

“They’ve made excellent efforts to try to bring the department up to speed,” Hamilton said of Sheriff Pete Gonzalez and his staff at the ACSO.

Because of the delicate nature of forensic interviewing, special skills and techniques are required to obtain the accurate information needed from children who may have been assaulted.

So, what does a forensic interviewer do?

Hamilton said she begins an interview by building a rapport with the child through coloring, drawing and asking simple questions. The activities also allow Hamilton to assess the cognitive skills of the child.

Once confident in her rapport with the child, Hamilton begins talking with the child about his or her family and friends, again typically through drawing, to find out what a typical week looks like to the child, and who is present in his or her life.

Hamilton then delves into learning about the child’s terminology for the parts of the body using cartoon anatomical drawings. Using the child’s word choices allows Hamilton to better communicate with and understand the child, and obtain accurate information.

From there, according to Hamilton, she starts asking the tough questions — what is OK and not OK with a child in terms of actions, while considering each person the child previously identified.

Anatomically correct dolls come in to play as a last resort, Hamilton said, such as when a child is unable to articulate what happened to him or her.

Hamilton said asking the right questions is critical, due to the shorter attention spans of children and said, sometimes, she might have only 30 minutes to complete an entire interview.

To end the interviews, Hamilton said she may relay safety tips to the child, depending on the situation; ask the child questions to ensure the child has a trustworthy adult he or she can talk to; reassure him or her that it was good they talked about the situation; and answer any questions the child might have (often, the questions have nothing to do with the interview, Hamilton said).

Hamilton said the alleged crimes are the factor motivating her to complete good interviews.

“My drive to find these people is very high,” she said, adding that she likes participating in the process that gets perpetrators and pedophiles off the streets.

“It just takes one incident to alter their lives for years,” she said.

Hamilton said assault is a problem that occurs worldwide and is sometimes difficult to prevent, partially because of where it happens and because it happens to a vulnerable part of the population.

“You can’t police what goes on behind closed doors,” she said.

Hamilton is also working to further advance her skills, with additional trainings on her calendar in September and October.

On the town side of things, Det. Scott Maxwell, of the Pagosa Springs Police Department, also completes the interviews when necessary, with Maxwell learning the techniques through experience and special classes on forensic interview.

The PSPD may also use the Department of Human Services to complete the interviews, depending on the circumstances of the case.

Maxwell goes about interviewing much the same way Hamilton does, noting that interviewers have to be very careful to not lead the child with questions, and to develop both rapport with the child and an understanding of the child’s language use and comprehension.

Maxwell said it is important to record interviews with both audio and video so as to try to interview a child only once.

Beyond the interviews, some alleged victims are subject to forensic examinations to collect physical evidence in a case.

Donna Bailey, Violence Prevention Coalition director and sexual assault nurse coordinator, said there are currently five or six sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) in Durango, and two sexual assault forensic examiners (SAFEs) in Pagosa Springs. SANEs receive more extensive training than SAFEs.

Forensic examinations are currently completed by either Pediatric Partners or in emergency rooms.

Additional efforts

Beyond the ACSO’s work to create a child-friendly environment to interview suspected victims, area agencies are working to better respond to reports.

Carla Wozniak, Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) coordinator for Colorado’s Sixth Judicial District, is current working to analyze what resources exist in the district, and is working with the Pagosa Springs Medical Center to train staff to perform forensic examinations.

Wozniak said a violence prevention task force has recently begun meeting, identifying issues in the area in terms of response, and is working to better coordinate agency efforts. The task force includes representatives of law enforcement, the medical field, the district attorney’s office and advocates.

The taskforce is part of the area’s Violence Prevention Coalition, which is made up of any and all agencies that have something to do with the response to domestic violence and sexual assault crimes.

The VPC works to develop victim-centered policies reflecting how agencies would like to see particular crimes handled within the judicial district, Bailey said.

The center also writes grants and provides training, public education and prevention projects.

Warning signs

According to Hamilton, symptoms of sexual assault can correspond with a number of other causes.

Hamilton said warning signs include withdrawal, a decline in hygiene, use of drugs and alcohol, sexual promiscuity, insomnia, lack of appetite, weight change, sudden changes in behavior and running away.

Hamilton added that it helps to have some form of evidence before reporting a suspected assault — something said by the child or catching the act in progress.

To better the chances of a child reporting such an encounter, Hamilton suggests making the topic of sex and sexual abuse less taboo within a family.

“It’s an uncomfortable topic, but it’s important,” Hamilton said.

Archuleta County Victim Assistance Program director Carmen Hubbs agrees with Hamilton, saying that communication can aid in reporting and prevention (if a child is more willing to tell a trusted adult, perpetrators may not commit the act).

“Hopefully we can start to change that societal pressure to not come forward,” Hubbs said. “It doesn’t have to be such a secret.”

Reporting

Hamilton said 80 percent of all sexual assaults (of all types, nationwide) go unreported, while Hubbs said that many children who are sexually abused are abused by someone they know.

Establishing the time and place of an act can also be difficult to establish when an act is reported, Maxwell said.

“It’s pretty rare we actually get a timely report,” Maxwell said, adding reports can come days, weeks or years after the alleged crime.

If a crime is suspected, a report can be filed by calling Archuleta County Combined Dispatch at 731-2160.

randi@pagosasun.com

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