By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
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By Craig Malisow
And then she was molested by the system that subjected her to interview after interview after interview. The assistant district attorney didn't like the first interviews, saying Sarah wasn't credible enough. Sarah, meanwhile, was going to pieces, spreading her own feces all over the walls because she was going to have to go to court and tell her story all over again to a roomful of adults, and she already knew they didn't believe her. And it didn't matter what the junior caseworker said on her behalf to the district attorney. The prosecutor wouldn't let Sarah testify on closed-circuit TV. She had to march into court and face her mother and stepfather.
Then her biological father appeared on the scene. He had remarried and passed his psychological tests showing he was nice and normal. And he wanted her. Wanted Sarah to go live with him and his new wife. But Sarah couldn't be released to him. Not yet. There was still the trial to go through.
Late one night, the foster mother who'd been taking care of Sarah while the justice system got around to deciding what it was going to do with her, in full violation of every rule governing foster parenthood, let the natural father take his daughter away. The new family fled to Kansas and, despite all the extradition papers filed by the state of Michigan, never came back.
Of course, the case against the mother and stepfather collapsed. The main witness was gone, and however disappointing Sarah had been to the prosecutor previously, there was nothing much left without her.
Ellen Cokinos, founder and executive director of Harris County's Children's Assessment Center, was the junior caseworker on that long-ago Michigan case. To this day she is of a mixed mind about what happened. "The kid is in college today," she says. "But those people should have gone to jail."
The one thing she was sure of, though, was that there had to be a better way to deal with child sexual abuse victims. So she got herself better trained and more educated, and with determination and a lot of public/private help, she has built a monument to that conviction on Bolsover Street in Houston.
And now experts from around the country come here to study it.
The center's goal is to put an end to the practice of having a child go through an emergency room examination, perhaps by a resident who has never handled a rape case before, and then a series of exhausting interviews by assorted law enforcement departments and social service agencies.
Sixty-seven videotape machines stand in rows and columns in one businesslike room of the center. Each one leads to rooms where cameras are hidden in closets. In another room someone from the police or sheriff's office or Children's Protective Services or the district attorney's office watches. The interviewer steps out of the room, excuses herself for a moment, then asks the other viewers if there's anything missed, any statement that should be reviewed again. When the interview is over, that's it, at least until (and if) the case goes to trial. There's no longer a gauntlet of interviews with different law enforcement and social service agencies for a child to negotiate.
But it does not make what follows pain-free. That their lives in most cases will be shattered even further is a given in many of the cases, particularly those involving incest. Yes, just as their assailant warned them all along, Daddy will go to jail, Mommy may not believe them, the family income will drop, Mommy won't have a husband for a while or forever again, which she may resent. Maybe they'll have to move, even go to a foster home if Mommy picks Daddy over them. They lose their school friends and the lives they knew and desperately want back, even with the bad parts.
A public/private venture, it is funded through Harris County Commissioners Court and the Children's Assessment Center Foundation. Eleven partner agencies share the space offering a range of legal, law enforcement, medical and counseling services.