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Is trial traumatic for child witnesses? - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Is trial traumatic for child witnesses?

Burlington, Vermont - April 20, 2010

"I'm very proud of her bravery," says a Chittenden County mother whose identity WCAX News is protecting. She has nothing but praise for her teenage daughter for showing maturity beyond her years when she testified against Robert Kolibas at trial last month.

The girl's story of what happened at a nightmare sleepover at her friend's house was key to convicting Kolibas, who'll be sentenced next month for sedating then molesting the victim.

"She was nervous," the mom remembers. "She was very nervous. But she had a lot of power behind her with all her friends and family who were there with her."

"I don't think we should be worried too much about using children as witnesses," says Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna. Hanna believes Vermont juries tend to see kids older than 10 or 12 as capable of providing credible testimony.

Hanna does not consider going to court as overly traumatic to kids. "The underlying trauma, of course, was a result of the victimization," Hanna explains. "I think there's a lot of evidence to suggest having kids testify is very therapeutic. They get to tell their story, people believe their story, and they don't harbor that shame into their adult lives."

"You never know what is going to happen when you put a child on the stand," says Champlain College Criminal Justice teacher Bob Simpson. He is Chittenden County's former state's attorney and found teen witnesses helpful.

Simpson points to defrocked Greek Orthodox priest Emmanuel Koveos as an example of how young people brave enough to come forward helped bring down an abuser. Koveos was convicted in the late 1990s of fondling a young parishioner.

Simpson was the prosecutor in that case, and says detectives and counselors who meet with alleged victims before trial are trained to not ask the kids leading questions. "The biggest problem is putting the child at ease so the child is not saying what he or she thinks you want to hear, but what happened," says Simpson.

As for Robert Kolibas' molestation victim, her mother predicts the girl is going to have a happy and healthy adulthood, thanks in large part to speaking up. "She feels more empowered as a young girl that she stuck up for herself," the mom says.

Our legal experts point out prosecutors do not always put children on the witness stand if they think it may be too difficult for a kid to testify. A plea deal may offer a less severe sentence than a jury's conviction, but the young person would be spared having to relive the crime in court.

It's hard to say if we're actually seeing child witnesses testifying more frequently nowadays. Former prosecutor Bob Simpson says that may just be the perception because special investigative units are helping bring more sex crime cases to light.

The mother of Robert Kolibas' victim tells us she and her daughter wanted to share their story, hoping more kids will feel comfortable coming forward and telling a trusted adult about their abuse.

Jack Thurston - WCAX News

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