When the victim or witness to a crime is a child, especially if abuse or violence was involved, testifying in court can be another traumatic experience.
To minimize further harm to the more than 100,000 children appearing in criminal, civil, and family courts each year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is publishing an updated policy statement in the March 2017 Pediatrics, "The Child Witness in the Courtroom" (published online Feb. 20).
Based on the latest research surrounding the accuracy and psychological impact of child testimony, the AAP recommends supporting young witnesses through a variety of measures. These include extending laws that allow child victims of physical and sexual abuse additional privacy measures, for example, along with options to hold comfort items or specially trained courthouse dogs. Whether children are sexually exploited, physically abused or witnesses to violence, they should all be offered the same set of protections to minimize further traumatization in courts. In addition, all child witnesses should be provided with mental health services to address their exposure to trauma and additional stress experienced in court.
The AAP also recommends only developmentally appropriate, nonthreatening, strictly relevant and scientifically effective methods for questioning children. For immigrant children facing deportation proceedings that include serving as a child witness, the AAP supports access to pro bono legal representation and court advocates.
In addition to the policy statement on child witnesses, the AAP is publishing an updated policy statement and technical report related to expert testimony. In these documents, both titled "Expert Witness Participation in Civil and Criminal Proceedings" and published online Feb. 20, the AAP recommends improving the quality of court-requested medical opinions and testimony by strengthening the qualifications for serving as a medical expert, educating pediatricians about ethical practices and standards for expert testimony, and supporting state medical board, licensing organization and professional society regulatory and disciplinary efforts.