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Crime & Courts

Protections for child witnesses fail to pass

Screenshot 2022-02-08 111805.jpg
May, Adam, Gerdes & Thompson
Justin Smith, lobbyist for South Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers

Criminal defendants have a constitutional right to face their accusers. When the victim is a child, certain protections exist in South Dakota law to minimize the trauma of appearing in court, including testifying by closed-circuit TV.

A group of child protection workers drafted two bills in an attempt to put up greater shields between the child and defendant, but the House Judiciary Committee, citing constitutional concerns, has disallowed most of them.

Justin Smith is a lobbyist representing the South Dakota Association of Youth Care Providers in Sioux Falls.

He told the House Judiciary Committee that the member organizations provide inpatient and other programs for victims of sexual and physical abuse and human trafficking.

“Our members are frequently the people who drive these children to their courtroom proceedings, during which they are asked to describe in detail the grotesque and painful experiences inflicted on them,” he said.

Children’s Home Society is one of the members, represented at the committee hearing by Tifanie Petro.

“We are the professionals in these scenarios, asking children to adjust to a world that was never designed with them in mind,” she said.

Petro said she has accompanied child victims of all ages into courtrooms.

The House Judiciary Committee amended both bills, eliminating most changes to existing law but including human trafficking as a crime and defining a child as someone under the age of 18, rather than under 12 years of age

“There have been times in which children have noted that they have experienced—the court experience was just as scary as their time being abused,” she said.

Petro told the committee that the proposed statutory changes would give legislative support to judges who decide to take greater steps to protect child witnesses.

Justin Bell lobbies for the South Dakota Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He said every defendant has the right to confront the witness, and if that right is violated, a conviction could be overturned on appeal and the child might have to testify again.

“Every time we make it easier for people to be convicted for crimes without following the constitution, without making someone show up to court and say, ‘This person did that,’ we’re making it easier also to put innocent people in prison,” Bell said.