She is a veteran police officer in the Western United States, and readers of her blog are instantly attracted to her humor and candor.
Momma Fargo is a former investigator and a certified forensic child interviewer, and I asked that she share her expertise on whether or not police should talk with a child who may or may not have been exposed to a violent incident.
I believe this topic to be relevant in the context of the death of Nikki LaDue January--when authorities chose not to speak to Nikki's five-year-old son who was present in the condo when his mother passed away.
And now, Momma Fargo.
Witnesses can help an investigator include or exclude evidence, information, or facts.
Whether they are considered material or immaterial witnesses…shouldn’t be weighed until court time. Their statements should be obtained as soon as possible after an incident.
Children are witnesses often forgotten.
Mostly, investigators may overlook their importance because they are small and their minds are underdeveloped. However, when they are present during an incident, they hold pieces to a puzzle that may make all the difference in a case.
I learned of their value when I became a forensic child interviewer and for many years investigated crimes against children. Finding that children behold valuable information at a young age is an understatement.
Taking the training one step further, I used my skills in homicides when the children were witnesses to a crime.
What age is too young to gather information?
I don’t think we really know a definite age, but we do know it depends upon the cognitive skills of a child. In a homicide case, I interviewed a child who was only 3 years old and her brother was only 4 years. They were both below the age I had ever interviewed a child before for any reason. It was a shot in the dark.
Forensic interviews are geared to be child friendly and gather information that doesn’t harm the child. They focus on only what is real, not allowing pretend or to introduce things to the child they didn’t experience or see. These methods were designed to obtain a true statement.
In 2002, two young children were present in the home when their mother was brutally killed by their father.
They watched this happen, this I am sure. The interviews took place at our Children’s Advocacy Center where the forensic interviews were conducted.
Using forensic interviews in a homicide case was new to us and we were treading on unknown territory in the legal realm as well. The children’s information was used to obtain a search warrant. The search warrant was crucial in getting into the home where we later found the woman’s body inside a duffel bag. The interviews did not come up in trial.
The children’s interviews were video and audio taped.
I still have them. I don’t need to watch them to know what they said. It will be forever ingrained in my head and I have spoken of it often in trainings.
The daughter stated things in her interview such as “mommy, daddy fight“, “ mommy’s face was red,” “daddy shoot”, “ mommy cry“ , “mommy fell down the stairs“, “mommy sleep”, and “daddy cleaned the house”.
She told the story while demonstrating and drew a picture of her father shooting her mother. Her brother stated, “daddy used a bat, hit mommy”, “blood everywhere”, “mommy have owies on her head”, “mommy not wake up“, and “mommy dead.” He also drew pictures.
Here is actually what happened…
The husband and wife got into an argument because she was leaving him the next day and divorcing him because of his drug problems. During the argument, the two became physical. He grabbed a shotgun and swung it like a bat, hitting her in the head. She tried to defend herself and the confrontation continued for quite some time until her death from blunt force trauma. He had beaten her over and over, using the shotgun like a bat. He had shoved the barrel into to her head, leaving an imprint of it which was found at autopsy. She had fallen down the stairs. No shots were fired.
How do you interpret what happened from the children’s statements given which were not “exact” or “factual” matching the evidence like an adult’s statement may have been or an older child’s?
Both the children’s stories were correct in the perspectives from how they saw the confrontation.
The girl saw her father shove the barrel into her mother’s head and she saw the action of the gun as appropriate to its use…pointing, hand on the butt of the gun, aiming it forward.
The boy saw the gun being swung and viewed it as a bat would be used. Both saw their mother fall down the stairs after getting beaten. The mother’s face was red from blood. She was asleep…permanently.
One child knew the mother was dead. They both saw her fall down the stairs, an action they could comprehend. The other information they may not come to understand until later if they remember. They both had years of therapy. They both lost both of their parents.
The man was convicted of murder.
How do you (the investigator) balance the child's trauma while obtaining case information?
Forensic interviews are designed to bring out information and avoid traumatic harm to the child. At the same time, information can be gathered to assist Victim’s Services in therapy or other need for the child and their family. Child advocacy centers are set up to provide all these services and have been established to investigate as a multi-agency process.
Is it often best to conduct the interview as soon as possible or wait until the loss can be addressed through family support and/or counseling before talking with the child?
Not only are children’s statements important, it is crucial to get them right away. You have to take into effect contamination, coaching, threats, and also alertness, attention span, and sleep. Perhaps you need to take their statements first thing in the morning versus at 11 o’clock at night. However, they must not be tainted by other persons in the meantime, so the investigator must weigh which is best for their case.
Waiting is detrimental to the case and to the validity of the child’s statement. Family can taint the child’s statement or memory and they can cause more trauma without first getting what we investigators call a “clean” statement. This can be unintentional.
If a child does not give a statement, counseling can sometimes provide that release. However, it depends on the situation whether the statement can be used. The Crawford decision limits these statements in court. Statements given to a doctor or counselor in the means of treatment can sometimes be brought into court. If the counselor or doctor is acting as an agent for police, the statements would not be admissible. Other exceptions exist as well.
In many of my cases, the perpetrator took a deal after seeing the audio and video of the child talking about the allegations against them in a child molestation case.
In the homicides I have worked, the child witness took the stand once. She recalled nothing because at the age of 18, she did not remember what happened when she was 3 years old.
However, the psychiatrist was able to bring her statements into court because she was seeing this doctor for treatment outside the scope of the case and law enforcement was not involved.
Whatever comes forward in court is a matter for the prosecutor. The investigator must gather the facts and evidence. This includes witness statements. It is important for a thorough investigation to remember everything…even when they are small and innocent.
As Momma Fargo stated, it is imperative to get statements from children sooner rather than later.
Sadly, no attempt was made to talk with Nikki LaDue January's young son. As such, no information was gleaned about the case or the potential need to refer the boy and his surviving family members to available counseling services.
Anyway, thanks to Momma Fargo--you can read more at her blog here.
Or,to view additional on the Nikki LaDue January case, go here.