Children schooled for day in court Program prepares them to testify in trials

December 29, 1996|By Mike Farabaugh | Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

Students receive no homework at the county's newest school, and its teachers are elated that, so far, 12 graduates have never been tested.

Modeled after a national program called Kids in Court, Carroll County's Kids in Court School works to ease the fears of children who are expected to testify.

The school's goals are simple: lessen the anxiety that children who are potential witnesses may experience and provide them with information they will need to testify effectively.

"We never talk about their specific cases," said Shirley Haas, director of the Victim Witness Assistance Unit of the Carroll County state's attorney's office.

"For privacy, only first names are used, and volunteers from the state's attorney's office and the Carroll County sheriff's office serve as teachers, assisting with role-playing."

Students learn about the players in the courtroom: judge, clerks, prosecutor, defense attorney, bailiff, deputies and "the most important person the witness," Haas said.

They also are taught to speak aloud, using their "outside voices," Haas said.

Not all potential child witnesses are invited to attend the Kids in Court School.

"Prosecutors will let us know if they think a case is going to trial," Haas said.

"They don't want to subject children needlessly to the anxiety of testifying," she said

Students practice answering questions by the mock prosecutor and defense attorney, responding, for example, by stating their name and where they go to school.

A prosecutor may ask how many hairs they have on their head, Haas said. "Questions such as that are used to help them understand that it is OK to say, 'I don't know,' and that they should not make guesses when they answer."

Props such as a deputy's badge, a judge's robe and a gavel are used to help the children get a feel for the courtroom during a trial. Students attend with a parent or guardian, and no one is forced to participate.

"Even the most shy, who say they just want to watch, usually join in after a few minutes," Haas said.

Before graduating, each student, generally between ages 9 and 13, takes an oath "to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," Haas said.

The cost of Carroll's program is marginal, a few dollars for snacks and drinks. The next session will be held when county prosecutors deem it's needed.

"We had 12 children who were involved in four different cases last summer for our first [session]," Haas said. "Thankfully, none have had to testify at a trial."

A New Windsor mother, whose shy, 9-year-old daughter attended the first session in Westminster, found the program worthwhile.

"I was very concerned about her having to go into a courtroom and tell strangers something that was difficult for her to tell Mommy and Daddy," she said. "When it was over, she said she had a lot of fun, and I was glad that she got to learn what each person in the courtroom does.

"She learned that the people were not there to attack her and would not harm her," the mother said.

Haas first learned about Kids in Court, which she said originated in Philadelphia, while attending a national symposium in Alabama in 1988. She helped institute court school in North Carolina, where she was employed in the district attorney's Child Advocacy Center.

At first, wary defense attorneys in North Carolina challenged the program, questioning children during trials about what happened in the Kids in Court School, Haas said.

They tried to get the children to say they had been coached about what to say in the courtroom, she said. Once they realized the children were being taught to tell the truth, the attorneys backed off, Haas said.

After two years in the state's attorney's office in Howard County, Haas shifted to a similar position in Carroll County last year.

Other Maryland counties offer similar court-education programs or services.

In Baltimore County, prosecutors work with children who must testify in court on an individual basis, said Sue A. Schenning, deputy state's attorney.

"Because circumstances vary from case to case, we don't work with groups of children," she said.

Baltimore County prosecutors give potential child witnesses a coloring book titled "What's My Job in Court?" that is funded by forfeited drug money, Schenning said. "They take the children into a courtroom and explain the terminology to them."

In Howard County, Denise McCain, coordinator of the Victim Witness Unit, said her office worked with 11 children identified as potential witnesses in October and November. Most did testify, she said, because they are not asked to come for an interview until a prosecutor is nearly certain their testimony will be needed.

McCain said the Howard County version is less formal than Carroll's. A legal advocate from the state's attorney's office works individually with the children, taking them on a tour of the courtroom after showing a videotape that explains what happens during a trial.

Even though preparation differs from county to county, Schenning, McCain and Haas agreed that educating children in advance, especially those who are victims of sexual abuse, helps eliminate their fear of testifying in open court.

Haas said Carroll County's court school is valuable for children involved in other circumstances.

"What we teach is so generic that it benefits a child who may have witnessed a robbery or an assault," she said. "We always stress that their role is not to punish, so they should not be worried whether the defendant is found innocent or guilty."

Older children who may need assistance before testifying in court are best helped individually, Haas said. Attending court school helps the younger children realize they are not alone and that others have the same fears, she said.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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