By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal
Today’s topic in my continuing series on sexual abuse is the process for investigations in Texas. Sexual abuse allegations typically follow a different pattern than investigations for things such as property crimes, drug crimes, or even other crimes against persons like robbery or murder. This is because many Texas counties have built their own unique infrastructure specifically designed for sexual abuse cases.
Children’s Advocacy Centers
It’s hard to understand the investigation process in an abuse case without understanding a Children’s Advocacy Center (“CAC”). A CAC is a combined law enforcement initiative. It’s a central facility and organization where different police agencies can pool their resources under one roof specifically for the investigation and prosecution of crimes against children. The CAC houses detectives along with other professionals who work with children in an effort to assist in criminal investigation and prosecution.
The CAC typically has liaisons with prosecuting agencies such as District or County Attorneys and it is not unusual for them to “roundtable” their cases where both prosecutors and law enforcement are present. Most of the professionals who work directly with the children or the accused also testify in court on a routine basis.
My understanding is most, if not all, Children’s Advocacy Centers are non-profits under 501(c)(3) of the tax code. Many testifying from the CAC are quick to point this out to a jury. I argue to juries this claim is true for tax purposes but is a bit misleading because it leaves the impression the CAC is a neutral fact-finding group. The truth is the Children’s Advocacy Center is really just a very unique police station.
What the Advocacy Center Does When they Get an Allegation of Abuse
Allegations of abuse (both physical and sexual) probably hit the CAC from all angles. It could be a referral from Child Protective Services (CPS), a call to the police from anywhere within the county, or potentially they are even directly contacted by victim’s parents.
Forensic Interviews of the Complaining Witness
It’s very common for the CAC to conduct what is known as a forensic interview of a child they believe to have been sexually or physically abused.
A forensic interview is where a person sits down with a child and asks them open-ended questions and passively steers the conversation to to talking about the alleged abuse. The interviewer does their best not to show judgment, approval, or anger towards the child’s claims. The interviewer also does their best not to inject their own terms, phrases, or ideas into the conversation.
The purpose of the forensic interview is part human-polygraph and part legal strategy. The forensic interviewer typically testifies as an “outcry” witness later in trial.
Suspect Interviews and Interrogations
It’s also common for a suspect to be brought to a CAC for an interrogation. Perhaps this is because it is less daunting to lure a suspect into “Children’s Advocacy Center” than it is to a police station. Many of these situations end with the suspect leaving in handcuffs whether or not the police get a confession. Then again, I’m sure a suspect or two have managed to talk their way out of trouble too (but no lawyer who knows what they are doing will ever advise you to attempt this on your own).
Cross-County or State Investigations
It’s also common for CACs in different locations to coordinate with one another when they need to. For instance if a child has since moved since the incident or allegation of abuse – the advocacy center where the child now lives may conduct the forensic interview(s) and/or interrogations of suspects.
Decision Making and Prosecution
The CAC staff and personnel go through their decision making process — whatever that may consist of — and they take whatever action they deem necessary. That could consist of referring the case to a grand jury for prosecution, more investigation, or not proceeding with charges against someone accused.
Optimally an accused gets a lawyer involved as soon as they know the wheels are in motion at the Children’s Advocacy Center for a prosecution. The lawyer can help talk “apples to apples” with the CAC detectives and try to do their best protect their client.
Of course, ultimately in America decisions about guilt and innocence aren’t made behind closed doors at a roundtable which doesn’t include the accused… which is why we see so much of advocacy centers and their personnel in the courtroom.
*Jeremy Rosenthal is certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. He has been designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.