Child's Inability To Testify Wrecks Case Against Father

March 10, 1991|By Maria Archangelo | Maria Archangelo,Staff writer

WESTMINSTER — The 4-year-old Taneytown girl in the pretty, blue-flowered dress squirmed in the big leather chair and said she wanted to go home instead of being the key witness in the sexual abuse case against her father.

After 15 minutes of painstaking and reluctant testimony, the little girl whose favorite color is purple and who likes to chew bubblegum didn't convince Circuit Court Judge Raymond E. Beck that she could discern a truth from a lie.

So, after a 15-minute recess, Beck granted her wish to go home. He declared her incompetent to take the witness stand, saying she was too young.

With that ruling, the case against the 28-year-old man -- who's since divorced from his wife -- fell apart.

The State's Attorney's Office had planned to present a protective service worker, who by law could have testified about what the child expressed in earlier interviews, particularly a fear of her father.

But none of that happened Thursday because of a state law allowing only certain professionals to testify about what an abuse victim tells them.

In child sexual abuse cases, the law permits physicians, psychologists andlicensed clinical social workers to tell the court what a victim told them about details of the incident.

But the protective services worker in the little girl's case was not a licensed social worker. She would have been able to testify about other aspects of the case, but not about what the little girl said happened to her last June.

Because the judge did not accept the child's testimony, the prosecutorwas forced to drop the four counts against the father, which included second- and third-degree sex offenses.

"It's hard to put the burden of proof on a 4-year-old," said Assistant State's Attorney Kathi Hill, who prosecuted the case. "But, technically, there was no other witness to the crime. It always tears at my heart to make a childtry to prove themselves in court."

M. Alexander Jones, director of theDepartment of Social Services, said the Carroll Protective Services Department has three licensed social workers. In two weeks, they willbe getting another licensed social worker, he said.

"That means we'll have 50 percent of our protective service workers licensed," he said. "That's more than most counties have."

Across the state, about half of the 514 protective service workers are licensed, said to Clarence Brown, a spokesman for the state Department of Social Services.

Jones said many protective service caseworkers are not licensedbecause of the often long and intense process it takes to become licensed. Licensing requires a master's degree or doctoral degree, a year of working under the supervision of a licensed clinical social worker and a passing grade on a licensing test given by the state Board of Examiners.

"Depending on your lifestyle, trying to get licensed can get very expensive," said Jones, adding that caseworkers with bachelor's degrees make little money and the state no longer offers scholarships for the caseworkers to get advanced degrees.

Hill said that while the lack of licensed social workers could cause problems, their testimony is not always crucial.

If the child has a good day and can tell a judge what happened clearly and convincingly, that is often enough, she said.

But sexual abuse cases involving 2- to 7-year-olds are often "really shaky," Hill said.

"Unfortunately, sometimes we can't charge anyone. If we have a 3-year-old with gonorrhea, she may be whispering daddy did it, but it's not enough to prosecute."

A bill proposed by Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, R-Baltimore City, would allow non-licensed social workers to testify in child abuse cases in some limited situations. A hearing on the bill was conducted in the Judicial Proceedings Committee Tuesday.

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