Obstacles lawyers face in child abuse cases

Criminal lawyers are no strangers to difficult cases and shady characters, but it is undoubtedly true to say that some cases are much harder than others, whether in terms of procedural difficulties or the emotional impact on all concerned. Among these types of cases, one of the most difficult can be child abuse cases. As well as the practical difficulties these cases often cause, they can also be very challenging emotionally and psychologically for the lawyers and anyone else involved in the case. However, while they can be difficult, they are also some of the most worthwhile cases. Many people become lawyers because they want to see justice carried out, and to see justice work for young victims of the nastiest of crimes can be particularly rewarding.

Legal proceedings

Legal proceedings in criminal law are complex, with a need to consider state laws as well as constitutional law and in the case of injury, the tort system.

Law is a highly skilled profession. To become a lawyer, an individual will need a bachelor’s degree and a Juris Doctorate (JD) degree following that. Until recently, the only option to acquire a juris doctorate degree was to attend university in person, and while this remains an excellent option for many, it is now no longer the sole path.

For those with existing financial commitments that mean they cannot take time out of the workplace for study, attending a university is difficult. Fortunately, they now have the option of accredited online providers which can allow more flexible study while still ebbing just as rigorous as their in-person counterparts. One of the accredited online juris doctorate degree programs can be found at Cleveland State University, Ohio. The CSU College of Law provides a number of specialized courses such as health law, business law, corporate compliance, criminal law, cybersecurity, and space law.

Through training and experience, students will become proficient in understanding how cases including child abuse cases run. However, there are other obstacles that lawyers will face and will need to find strategies to overcome.

Psychological difficulties

Child abuse can take numerous forms. It can be physical abuse where the child is injured, sometimes severely and over a sustained period, or it can be sexual, which may include the making of images and other criminal activities. Another form is psychological abuse, something that can often be the hardest to prove, or it may take the form of neglect, with children not being provided with the basics such as food. A case may focus on one of these forms of abuse or it may be that the child has faced two or more forms.

While the different forms of abuse can also manifest differently, all are horrific in their different ways. A criminal lawyer working in child abuse cases may hear some harrowing testimony, see evidence of terrible injuries, and may even see images or videos of the abuse itself. This can be very difficult to process.

Seeing evidence of cruelty to children is inevitably difficult. In addition, many lawyers are parents or grandparents themselves and may find it particularly difficult in cases where the children are of a similar age to their own.

There is no ‘getting used’ to child abuse. However, there are ways that a lawyer can minimize the psychological impact on themselves, helping to safeguard their own mental health and ensure that they can represent the client without their own emotions intruding. Lawyers should try to keep the case in their workplace and feel able to leave it behind at the end of the day.

During leisure time, lawyers should make time for themselves, doing activities they find enjoyable, and finding ways to relax, whether it is watching a favorite show, listening to music, or simply relaxing in the bath. By compartmentalizing life, lawyers will be able to keep the harrowing aspects at work and not allow them to intrude on their personal life.

Client confidentiality will mean that these lawyers are not able to discuss the work with others, however, lawyers may have colleagues that they can use to decompress who will understand the psychological difficulties in these cases.

Ultimately, the best way to overcome the psychological impact is for lawyers to remind themselves of why they are doing this. Victims of abuse have suffered, often at the hands of people they should be able to trust, and the lawyer is there to help them get the justice they deserve.

Lack of witnesses and evidence

Child abuse is, by its nature, a hidden crime and there are often few if any witnesses to the abuse itself. There may be witnesses who can testify to the aftermath, such as a doctor who treats an injury, but it may be equally easy for their testimony to be cast into doubt. Children do, after all, have accidents that a defense could point to as the cause.

Evidence too can be lacking. Psychological abuse, particularly, leaves little in the way of physical evidence. Likewise, sexual abuse, unless an examination takes place very soon after the abuse has occurred, may leave little physical evidence.

However, a lawyer can look for patterns. Certainly children can have accidents, but if a child regularly suffers an injury, an accident becomes less likely. They can also look for psychological evidence, such as from a therapist who worked with a child or evidence from relatives or teachers who can testify as to how the child’s personality has changed.

And there is, of course, one witness – the child.

Child witnesses

Victims of child abuse may be the only witnesses in a case, resulting in a situation where it is their word against the accused. In cases where there is little other evidence, this can be problematic, as a jury inevitably made up of adults may find it easier to identify with the adult accused rather than the child victim. This may mean that they are more susceptible to a defense argument that the child has made it all up, since children are indeed well-known for their imaginative play.

However, to balance against that is the natural disgust that the public has for child abusers and the fact that jurors may well be parents, understanding how vulnerable children can be. Abuse is frighteningly common and so one or more of the jurors may once have been a victim of abuse. Ultimately, it is best not to worry too much about jury prejudice and simply concentrate on presenting the evidence from the child witness.

Getting testimony from a child, however, can be difficult. The child may be traumatized and not want to recount their experiences, particularly to a stranger. Additionally, as most abuse is carried out by someone known to the child and very often a close relative, getting testimony from a child means asking them to testify against someone they love. Abusers have frequently urged secrecy on their victims and this, perhaps combined with shame, may make the child very reluctant to talk.

Forensic interviews of children is a skill. Often, these interviews are carried out in children’s advocacy centers by trained professionals such as law enforcement officers, child welfare caseworkers, or others with specialized training. A lawyer will need to decide whether the child will give evidence in court. In some areas, steps can be taken to avoid the child having to face their abuser in court, but in other circumstances it can be very difficult for the child to appear in court, giving evidence against someone who is likely a close relative, perhaps even their own parent.

The decision on this must be on a case-by-case basis. In some cases, there may be sufficient evidence that allows lawyers to avoid the trauma of the child needing to appear in court. However, if handled properly with adequate support, it can be very empowering for the child to be part of the process that sees their abuser punished and help them in their recovery.

Well-meaning relatives

Relatives of the child, particularly their parents, will have their own emotions to deal with and this can make them act in a way that is not beneficial to a trial. They are likely to be, quite understandably, furious at what has happened, but making threats or even attacking the accused will be problematic when a case comes to trial.

Parents will also want to help their child through an investigation and trial, but do not have the training to do this effectively. Asking a child leading questions or coaching them on the right words they need to answer will all be highly detrimental if this comes out at trial.

It is important that the parents are guided towards support and information on the process. This may be something a legal firm can offer or there may be groups or charities who can offer parents advice on the best way to support their child without jeopardizing their chance at justice.

Historical cases

With the culture of secrecy around child abuse and the challenge of a child having to make an allegation against someone who may be close them, it is not surprising that many child abuse cases are not reported until a considerable time has elapsed. In the case of very young children, they may not even be aware for a long time that abuse has taken place or recognize that what happened was illegal. The statute of limitations is 10 years, but this period only starts when the child turns eighteen, so it may be that even longer has passed.

The time elapsed means that physical evidence is likely long gone and it is harder to track down people who might have been able to testify, and witnesses a lawyer does have, including the child themselves, will have patchy memories, which make it easier for a defense team to discredit. However, it is important to remember that if there are gaps in a witness’s testimony or even if they have ‘remembered’ something provably wrong, this does not mean the abuse did not take place. For example, most people would find it difficult or impossible to recall every detail of a vacation they took 10 years ago, and it may be that their memories are at odds with the memories of others on that trip. However, this does not mean that the vacation did not take place.

It also does not mean that such cases will not result in a successful prosecution. Medical records and school reports, for example, will likely still be available and internet technology makes it easier to find people even if they have moved elsewhere. Historical cases are tricky to prosecute, but they are not impossible, and it is highly rewarding to see a young person gain justice at last.

The prospect of failure

The sad truth is that it is not easy to get a prosecution in the case of child abuse, with many cases not even reaching court and of those that do, plenty result in ‘not guilty’. It is very easy for lawyers to feel that they have failed a young victim when this happens, perhaps discouraging them from such cases in the future.

Lawyers should not be afraid to seek support if they are feeling this way. They should also remind themselves that at least an attempt was made. Before a case goes to trial, lawyers should ensure that they do not give victims false hope, as that can make it all the harder if the case fails. But just the act of going to trial can help a victim get closure, even if it is not the ending they wanted. It can also be hugely beneficial to them that at least one person – their lawyer – did believe them and helped fight their corner.

It is also possible that in the lawyer’s next case, the prosecution will be successful. A lawyer may not be able to get justice for all victims, but they can certainly get justice for some of them.

Lawyers for the defense

Lawyers representing the defendants in child abuse cases may have an even harder time. After all, nobody wants to help an abuser go unpunished and it can be easy for the defense lawyers to start wondering whose side they are on.

The American justice system has been set up in the way it has for a reason. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and everyone has a right to a fair trial. And that includes those accused of child abuse. A defense lawyer’s job is to ensure that all clients get a fair trial. This does not make them an abuser.

An unfair trial benefits no-one, particularly not the victim. If a trial has been deemed unfair later, this may result in a conviction being ruled unsound. For a victim who has moved on with their life, it can be devastating to have it raked up again and if their abuser then gets compensation because their trial has been ruled unfair, it can be even more upsetting. Whatever side a lawyer is on in a trial, defense or prosecution, they are part of the justice system.

Obstacles to overcome

Being a criminal lawyer in child abuse trials is certainly no easy task. Emotionally, these lawyers will have to come to terms with the harrowing testimony they may hear and the images they may see, as well as face the prospect of seeing an abuser walk free. There are also many practical obstacles in the way such as well-meaning family, traumatized witnesses, and the passing of time can then make the odds of a successful prosecution seem low.

Criminal lawyers enter the system because they are keen to be part of seeing justice done and the fact that there may be significant obstacles to this, does not mean that no one should try. Lawyers perform a vital role for the victim, perhaps being among the first people to listen to them and believe them. Whatever the outcome of a trial, for those victims, simply knowing that they spoke up can help them come to terms with their trauma and bring them closure.

Throughout this process, lawyers should most certainly practice self-care. It is a demanding job so they should make the most of their time away from work, taking part in activities they enjoy, spending time with family and friends, or simply relaxing. It will help them recharge the body and mind ready to support victims.

As part of the criminal justice system, lawyers are playing an important role in society. Not every case will be successful, but for those cases that are, knowing that they have helped make an abuser accountable for their crimes, while giving the victim a sense of justice, is the ultimate reward for the obstacles overcome.