A Day in the Life of a Child Abuse Prosecutor
By: Robert J. Peters
I knew very little about the life of a child abuse prosecutor before my first year of law school. In the midst of reviewing mind-numbing (to me) excerpts of contract and property law, I saw darkness. For the first time, I saw wave after wave of horrifying stories from within my faith tradition–it seemed like they infected every institution I respected. Worse, I saw the darkness of those who claimed my faith while blindly siding with offenders over child victims–and anyone who voiced concern.
My career path quickly crystallized in response. I enrolled in some excellent course electives from my friend and mentor, former prosecutor Boz Tchividjian, who would often refer to children and child advocates as rays of light in the darkness. During my final year of law school, I applied solely to prosecutor’s offices in my home state of West Virginia.
My passion was and is to seek justice for our children, whether that be through felony prosecution of those who harm them, terminating the parental rights of abusers through civil proceedings, or advocating for the best interests of juvenile offenders (the overwhelming majority of whom have suffered from abuse) and the public.
Abuse cases are among the most difficult to prosecute. The crime is serious. Victims have suffered trauma and are often very young. Myths about abuse dynamics are everywhere, including on juries. Medical evidence often does not exist due to the timing of disclosures or the type of crime. Investigations are complicated by delayed disclosures, interference by well-meaning (or not-so-well-meaning) adults, and sometimes a lack of investigative specialization in law enforcement.
All of this means that to prosecute abuse effectively, you must dedicate long hours to this worthy work, and you must rely on and develop the expertise of those around you.
Every day as a prosecutor is different: when you deal with juvenile or abuse cases, almost every day involves multiple court hearings, whether that be hearings to determine that probable cause exists, hearings to determine the penalty an abuser should be given or whether their parental rights should be terminated, status hearings on the treatment progress of juvenile offenders, trials conducted in front of a judge, or full-blown jury trials.
Jam-packed into those days (and typically nights and weekends) are phone calls with law enforcement, reviews of reports and referrals for new offenses, staying up-to-date with West Virginia Supreme Court decisions and the ever-changing West Virginia Code, plodding through an inbox overstuffed with electronic court filings, CAC interviews to attend, and meetings with victims, families, school personnel, law enforcement, Child Protective Services, and parents of juvenile offenders. Tammy Walker is a gifted secretary who somehow keeps me on track through all of the above. Somewhere in there you prepare for Court as well.
Every day requires a multidisciplinary approach, and a majority of what I do is done in partnership with others. For example, my goal is to prioritize victims throughout the process, which means meeting with victims and their family and hearing their concerns–well in advance of trial, multiple times.
To do this, I rely on victim advocates to stay in contact with the victim and his or her family and update me with potential concerns. Is the victim receiving backlash or support from the family? Is the victim prepared for the grueling trial process, or is more therapy and interaction needed first? At trial, victim advocates become even more important. The child who has just been cross examined by his abuser needs immediate and long-term love and support–and he may not be getting that at home. My current office in Marion County wisely has a full-time victim advocate, Kim Hawkins, to take on this important role.
Preparing a child for this traumatizing (and often unfair) process is essential. My coworker and fellow prosecutor Dennis Kittle is especially skilled at preparing young victims for trial in a way that is reassuring, confidence-building, and honest. Seeing children triumph at trial over their abuser, and having some small part in that, is a great privilege.
Another daily partner is the local Child Advocacy Center. I have been incredibly fortunate to work with two amazing CAC directors: Amber Talley at SARAH’s House CAC, and Mike Baker at the Marion County CAC. Just out of law school, I remember being blown away by the transparent passion the SARAH’s House staff had for child safety, and how they would routinely respond after-hours to do everything they could. Every CAC I’ve worked with has been the same: children matter to them.
Unless I have court, I attend the CAC interviews for my cases, which enables me to immediately work with law enforcement and/or Child Protective Services on the appropriate action steps. Depending on the nature of disclosures, my day may include consulting with Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners and other medical professionals.
Every day, I meet a new, unique challenge, and try to take the crucial step of asking for help. Child protection professionals in general, and those in my current office in particular, are excellent resources.
Through all of this I encounter great darkness–vile acts perpetrated on innocent children, typically by someone they love.
Initially it was that darkness that drew me into prosecution–I was drawn to fight it.
But after prosecuting for a few years, my motivation is shifting.
A young girl suffered for years, no one believing her. I spent countless hours combing through horrific material in her case. We were finally able to move forward to a hearing, and she shook violently, holding her stomach with both hands from the moment she entered the courthouse. We were able to get through the hearing without calling her as a witness (to her immediate, visible relief), and afterwards I tried to explain to her my argument to the judge for why she shouldn’t be in the same room with the abuser at trial.
I will never forget her cheerful, smiling response. “Don’t worry about it! You’ve done enough.”
Another girl, like so many other children in our court system, was aggressively questioned, in a room full of strangers, by the man who abused her.
I could not protect that girl from a trauma most of us can’t even imagine. I was powerless, watching him traumatize her again.
After trial she sent me a note: “You’re my Superman.” “You’re my family now.” “I couldn’t have done it if you weren’t my prosecutor.”
I think I’m beginning to understand what Boz meant. In the midst of unfathomable darkness, the courage and resilience of these children are blinding rays of pure, powerful, irrepressible light.
I no longer fight because of the darkness. I fight for them.
Their light pierces the darkness. Their light gives me hope. And the darkness will not overcome it.