Improper Use of Statements Made by Alleged Child Sexual Abuse Victim to Child Advocacy Center is not Grounds for Reversal

The case of State v. Just, 2012-Ohio-4094, contains an interesting discussion of the use of statements may by an alleged child victim of sexual abuse to social workers at a Child Advocacy Center.

The facts of this case started in May 3, 2011.  At that time, the alleged victim wrote a note stating that the defendant, who lived next-door, had sexually abused her.  The alleged victim was eight years old at the time.

The alleged victim met with an intake worker from Wayne County Children Services as well as a sexual assault nurse examiner.  She described multiple incidents of abuse spanning over several years.

At trial, the court permitted to jury to hear a recording of the alleged victim’s interview with an intake worker from Wayne County Children Services.  The Defendant argues that the recording constitutes hearsay and also that its admission violated his rights under the Confrontation Clause.

[Full disclosure:  While working as a prosecutor, I helped write an amicus curiae brief on the Confrontation Clause in Davis v Washington, which is cited by the appeals court here, for the District Attorney’s Association for the U.S. Supreme Court.]

The Rules of Evidence permit the introduction of out of court statements – hearsay —  in certain limited circumstances.  One of these is when statements are “made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment.”

In this case, the interviewer testified that she is employed by Wayne County Children Services and acts as the supervisor for the intake unit assigned to sexual abuses cases.  She interviewed the alleged victim at Wooster Community Hospital’s Child Advocacy Center.  The interview was conducted while a sexual assault nurse examiner observed.  The interviewer claimed that the intake interview was conducted to aid the subsequent medical exam that will take place.

The court noted that an “interview at a child-advocacy center may serve dual purposes: one that is intended to elicit medical information for diagnosis and treatment, and one that is intended to gather forensic information for the purposes of prosecution.”  The Ohio Supreme Court has previously noted that child advocacy centers conduct interviews with the purpose of gathering as much information as possible in a single setting to reduce the trauma child-abuse victims may suffer  as a result of having to recount their abuse multiple times.  As a result, the interview may provide both medical information and non-medical information that is useful to the prosecution.

The court found that while the alleged victim made many statements for the purpose of medical diagnosis and treatment, she also “made statements, however, regarding the details of the circumstances surrounding the abuse.”  Because they were not necessary for medical treatment, the statements are not admissible as statements for medical diagnosis and also are subject to the Confrontation Clause.

The Confrontation Clause was not implicated in this case, however.  First, statements for medical diagnosis, because they are not “testimonial” – or meaning intended for legal proceedings — may be admitted without offending the Confrontation Clause.  Second, the Confrontation Clause guarantees the right of cross-examination and is not violated when, as in this case, the victim appears in court and testified.

The court concluded that even though the out of court statements were improperly admitted under the medical treatment exception to the hearsay rule, this did not justify a reversal of the defendant’s conviction.  This is because the alleged victim “testified at trial to the same events that she described in her interview.”  The court applied a rule that when hearsay testimony is essentially cumulative to a declarant’s in-court testimony, any resulting error is harmless.

 

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