Wisconsin Child Witness in Sexual Assault Case

Question: When would a child witness need to testify in a sexual assault case in Wisconsin? Can you discuss some of the challenges that this presents?

Answer: Generally, a child witness is needed to testify, is required to testify if that child is the complaining witness—so if that child is the person to whom a sexual assault has been done—or if the child has important eyewitness information about a sexual assault that has happened.

Generally speaking, when a child is involved, that child is going to be taken to a specific location with a specially trained person and asked questions so such that there is a video of the child and their questions and answers. And depending on the age of the child, that can sometimes be used in court, at least initially, in order to allow all those questions and answers previously asked to be dealt with through that. But then the child usually—again, depending on age and some other factors—usually has to testify in court as well as that video being played.

There’s a lot of issues that can be presented by child witnesses, depending on the age of the child. For example, you have to look at what their ability is to have understood what happened—whether it happened to them or it’s something that they saw—their ability to understand what happened; their ability to understand what the truth is and to convey that, depending on the age of the child and their level of experience and their level of ability to communicate. And those can be issues that have to be dealt with carefully.

There’s a lot of literature as well that shows that children are extremely suggestible in how they answer questions; not necessarily wanting to provide false information, but wanting to please the adults that are asking them questions, and sometimes that can be a big issue, again, depending upon the age of the child and their ability to communicate well.

And then sometimes, especially if it’s in front of a jury, there’s just issues of how do you deal with a child of that age, potentially they’re saying that they were the victim of a sexual assault, and how does that look to the jury? How do you present those issues? And you have to think about all that and deal with it carefully ahead of time.


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