Interviewing Children with Disabilities in Child Abuse Cases: A New Approach

A Child’s Story Unfolds

It started in the sawdust, on the floor in a barn in Northern Vermont. Eight-year-old A. had been living with her beloved aunt and uncle for a few days. They had rescued her from a life on-the-run. She had been homeless and living in a car with her mother.

A. loved to be with her uncle while he worked in his woodshop in the barn. She was sitting on the floor, drawing pictures in the sawdust. She looked up at her uncle, saying nothing.

He glanced at the drawings. He looked at them again, then again. Could it be? A. had drawn stick figures of a child and a man. The man’s penis was going in the child’s mouth, vagina, and anus. A. looked up at her uncle, again, still silent. “She’s trying to tell me something,” he thought. How could an eight-year-old child know about these things?

“Did someone do this to you?”

The uncle sat down on the floor beside her and A. began telling her story, using the sawdust. No words were spoken. A. had verbal communication disabilities and she was on a special education plan at school. She could usually talk at least a little, but right now, she could not speak at all. When she was done telling her story in the sawdust, she had identified 11 people who had sexually assaulted her.

Could this be a crazy, fantasy story? Her uncle asked her about the specifics and tried to catch her in a mistake. But she was consistent. The stories of the 11 people were each different as to who did what to her, where, and how many times. Her stories, told in the sawdust, never wavered.

Her uncle carried her back to the house and called the police.
The case was initially handled as all such cases are: the Department of Children and Families sent an investigator, along with a police officer, to interview the child. In Vermont, all of these interviews are video-recorded.

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ABA Center for Children & the Law. Christina Rainville, JD, is the Chief Deputy State’s Attorney for Bennington County, Vermont, where she heads the Special Investigations Unit. She is also a former recipient of the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico Award.