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Investigating claims of child abuse, especially sexual abuse, is sensitive issue

FARGO, N.D. - In a small, blue-walled room furnished with two lounge chairs and a coloring table, the forensic interviewer lays out the rules for the suspected child abuse victim.

Tell the truth.

No guessing.

It's OK to say you don't know the answer.

Across the hall, a team of medical and mental health professionals, social workers, police and prosecutors sits around a table, watching the interview on closed-circuit television monitors.

The child knows they are watching. There are no secrets here.

"It's a child-led interview, so kind of wherever the child takes you is where you go," interviewer Carissa Cowley said.

Last year alone, this scenario played out nearly 600 times at the Red River Children's Advocacy Center in downtown Fargo.

Twice this month, the center was used to interview alleged victims of 53-year-old Jon Pabody of Moorhead, who is charged in Clay County with two counts of criminal sexual conduct for allegedly abusing two girls, ages 3 and 7, at his wife's home day care.

Those involved in investigating suspected child abuse cases follow specific protocols designed to protect the child and ensure that answers given can be used in criminal prosecution if charges are pursued.

There's pressure to get it right the first time, said Fargo Police Detective Paula Ternes, a trained forensic interviewer since 2006 who specializes in crimes against children.

"First and foremost, we don't want to put that child through multiple interviews because of what they've already experienced," she said.

The Children's Advocacy Center accepts referrals only from law enforcement agencies and child protection services.

A parent or other caregiver who's not suspected of abuse accompanies the child to the center, nestled within the white, cube-shaped Professional Building at 100 4th St. S.

They first enter the family room, where a family advocate meets with the caregiver.

In the blue room, the center's full-time forensic interviewer, Cari Lake, and Cowley, who is jointly employed by Cass County Social Services, follow the National Child Advocacy Center's interview model. Law enforcement agencies with their own trained interviewers, such as Ternes, also use the room.

The interviewer begins by trying to build a rapport with the child, while at the same time screening him or her for cognitive development. The center typically doesn't interview children under 3 years old.

The interviewer then outlines the rules, which includes telling the child that it's OK to correct the interviewer if they wrongly interpret something.

"That's especially important to tell a younger child, because they're not used to correcting an adult," Ternes said.

Ternes also tells children that if she asks a question more than once, it doesn't mean they answered wrong the first time, but rather that she wants to get it right, she said.

From there, the interviewer begins a line of questioning that Cowley compares to a funnel, starting with a broad opener such as "Tell me about your family." They ask open-ended "narrative response" questions to elicit details without placing suggestions in the minds of youths.

"Instead of me saying, 'Uncle Joe did those things to you, didn't he?' we circle that topic and (say), 'Well, tell me about Uncle Joe.' We leave it very open," Ternes said.

Anatomically correct drawings are used to talk to the child about safe and unsafe touches.

It's important that the interviewer remain neutral and not outwardly react to the child's answers, because in most cases the child has already reported the abuse to a parent or caregiver, Ternes said.

"And they, of course, react like any parent would hearing that. They get upset, they get mad, whatever," she said. "So, a lot of times the kids will see that and think 'I did something wrong. I don't want to talk about this again.' "

Parents and other caregivers aren't allowed to watch the interviews.

"A lot of times, if the kids know the parent's watching, they're not as likely to talk," Lake said.

To help them feel comfortable, the children are allowed to do what they please during the interview, as long as it's safe. Lake said some kids like to color or hide behind chairs, but she's also had Play-Doh thrown at her during an interview.

"As long as they're talking, we don't care what they're doing," she said.

Interviewers block out two hours for each session, but interview lengths vary.

"You can be in there 20 minutes. You can be in there 2½ hours," Lake said.

After the interview, the team completes a recommendation form and the family advocate discusses it with the caregiver.

Sometimes the recommendations include a medical exam, which is performed on the same floor as the Children's Advocacy Center by staff from Sanford Health, including Dr. Arne Graff and Carrie Simonson, a sexual abuse nurse examiner.

Sexual abuse was the most common type of abuse reported among the 581 children seen by the center last year, with 347 reporting it, according to center statistics.

The medical exam basically consists of a head-to-toe checkup, Simonson said. The exam has a specialized colposcope equipped with a camera to see and document evidence of sexual abuse.

Even if the abuse happened years ago, victims are examined to reassure them that their bodies are normal, Simonson said.

"A lot of these kids get funny ideas that people will be able to tell that this happened to them," she said.

Since moving from MeritCare to the Professional Building in April 2006, the Red River Children's Advocacy Center has seen about an 85 percent increase in the number of children it sees annually, from 314 to 581 last year.

The center serves roughly 18 counties in North Dakota and Minnesota, but some South Dakota agencies also have begun using the center. A satellite office has been established in Grand Forks, and Bismarck and Minot also now have their own children's advocacy centers to better respond to child abuse.

Of the 581 children seen last year at the Fargo center, 59 cases were accepted for prosecution, leading to 33 convictions, 22 pleas and two acquittals, center statistics show.

The nonprofit center relies on funding from the state, foundations and community donations, said Anna Frissell, center director.

In addition to the child-focused services, the center also provides health education for caregivers in an effort to support the entire family, Frissell said.

"Because if everybody's supported, then the kid's supported, and that's the most important thing for us," she said.

MIKE NOWATSKI is a writer for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. The Bemidji Pioneer and The Forum are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.