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GSEP Professor Unites Law and Psychology in New Book on Child Witnesses
It is painful to imagine sitting on the witness stand as a child abuse victim. Describing your suffering to a courtroom of adults—including the defendant—is intimidating at best and traumatic at worst.
Susan Hall, associate professor of psychology at the Pepperdine Graduate School of Education and Psychology, has taken a deep look at the legal and psychological adjustments that can be made for these child witnesses in her new book, Courtroom Modifications for Child Witnesses: Law and Science in Forensic Evaluations (American Psychological Association 2008).
"For some children it's really empowering to be able to say what happened to them, and they feel stronger as a result," says Hall, who coauthored the book with University of Arizona professor Bruce D. Sales. "For some, though, it is really traumatizing, and they fall apart on the stand, in tears, unable to say what happened to them."
How a child should tell his or her story to a courtroom can be a point of contention. A balance must be found between the needs of the victim and the rights of the defendant to a fair trial. Hall notes, "The sixth amendment requires that defendants be allowed the right to confrontation, but child protection advocates want to make sure that we're not re-traumatizing the kids. Some children need protecting from a face-to-face confrontation with the accused."
The 1990 U.S. Supreme Court case Maryland v. Craig decided that an alleged child abuse victim could provide testimony via closed circuit testimony if the experience was likely to cause not just discomfort for the child, but actual trauma. For other children, however, the presence of a support person or teddy bear can often help ease the situation. Some courts allow trained dogs to sit with child witnesses. Finding the right modification for each child is where the crossover between the law and psychology comes in.
Hall's book comprises a unique combination of legal knowledge and psychological expertise, reflecting her own background in both fields. She earned her undergraduate degree in psychology and government from Georgetown University before going on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology, as well as a J.D., from the University of Arizona.
While working as pro bono legal counsel in a domestic violence clinic before attending graduate school, Hall realized that working for abused women's legal needs wasn't enough. "There were other needs not being addressed by the legal system," she explains. "The children also had needs that weren't being met."
A graduate school grant funded her investigation into the use of accommodations and modifications for children in the courtroom, and she began writing on the subject in early 2000.
"The most challenging part of writing the book was actually keeping up with the changing laws over the years," Hall describes. "But I realized the crossover of law and psychology on this matter was something few people had written about. I wanted to put it all together in one book: the laws, the variations of situations, potential modifications, what is fair, what will work, and even how to define trauma."
Hall and coauthor Sales, who were assisted with research by graduate students, hope the book will be used by mental health professionals and lawyers alike, for the good of every child witness passing through the legal system.
"We need to remember in each case to really assess the needs of the individual child," she says. "This book aims to provide as much comprehensive information about this subject as possible, so that some attorneys and psychologists who might assume court modifications aren't possible, know they are."