LIMA — Imagine you’re a witness or a victim in a criminal trial. You’re seated in the courtroom. Twelve strangers are seated in the jury box, peering at you quizzically. There are attorneys galore, along with court staff and uniformed security, members of the media and even more strangers in the audience.
It can be intimidating.
Now imagine you’re 8 years old. You’re on the witness stand and the defendant is your father, step-father or mom’s boyfriend. The fears being experienced are almost certainly nothing short of terrifying.
Terri Kohlrieser has seen court proceedings such as that from several perches: first as an assistant Allen County prosecuting attorney and currently as a common pleas court judge. She was the guest speaker Wednesday at a meeting of the Lima Noon Optimist Club and spoke about the efforts the local court has taken in conjunction with social service and law enforcement agencies involved in crimes involving children to reduce the trauma young victims experience.
“Common Pleas Court is a system designed for adults; it’s not really designed for children,” Kohlrieser said. “But we see crimes where children are witnesses or, unfortunately, victims. That child’s age and ability depends on how we handle each case.”
The judge said it becomes evident very quickly “that handling a child is not like handling an adult” in a courtroom setting. “With children who are verbal it’s one thing, but if they can’t communicate, handling them can be difficult,” she said.
Kohlrieser said children who get entangled in the judicial system often have to tell of awful events they’ve seen or experienced over and over again. It is the court’s goal, the judge said, to minimize their trauma.
“Early on in my time as a prosecutor the various agencies got together and we formed the Child Abuse Response Team. Now in Allen County if a child reveals something that may be a crime, law enforcement and Children’s Services work together so only one person interviews the child. They also work with the Child Advocacy Center and children are interviewed just once for medical, law enforcement and prosecutorial purposes combined. That’s less trauma.”
Kohlrieser said that even though allowances can be made to accommodate children, “The law is very specific about what can come into evidence and what can’t. With 8-year-olds, following rules is a little different. Everyone over the age of 10 is “competent” to testify. When they’re under 10 the court determines if they are competent to testify.”
Ultimately, Kohlrieser asked the Noon Optimists and the public in general to keep in mind that young people and adults alike who find themselves in a courtroom setting “are already facing a challenging situation.”
“A little patience is nice” when it comes to expressing opinions about the outcomes of those situations, the judge said.