In a dark, wood-paneled courtroom, a judge sits behind his bench, observing grave proceedings. Lawyers speak in hushed tones, preparing their questions for the witness. In the midst of this somber atmosphere, a young girl approaches the bench preparing to testify, clutching her stuffed dog. This scene opens What Jennifer Knew, a one-hour documentary produced by Nursing graduate student Margaret Slusser, which addresses the controversial issue of children testifying in court. Slusser began the project as "a study in children's rights," but quickly found that this "was far too broad a topic" and decided to concentrate on children in courtrooms. "Court is an arena with adult actors, and when children have to participate in court there is minimal attention provided to this fact," said Nursing Professor Ann Burgess, Slusser's adviser. "People don't understand how to deal with children in the courtroom." Early on, Slusser realized that children are confused by the legal process. This confusion often means that "every child who goes into court faces trauma." Slusser interviewed a young boy who, when asked what a jury was, replied that "he thought his mother had some gold jewelry." She did not interview any children who had testified in court, since she did not want to "revictimize" the children. One of the difficulties with the issue of children testifying is what Slusser calls "the two-sided dilemna." Since children are often attuned to details that adults may miss, they can be extremely important witnesses. But in the intimidating environment of the courtroom, children can become confused and stumble over facts. Some child advocates have tried to combat this confusion by taping the young witnesses immediately after the incident, in a less threatening environment. Sometimes this testimony is admissable in court. But this method impinges on defendants' sixth ammendment right to face their accusers. Slusser had problems speaking to mental health researchers about their work, since many researchers had previously been approached by television programs like 20/20 and 60 Minutes and are wary of having their results misinterpreted. Slusser, a practicing nurse who is pursuing a graduate degree in mental nursing, regularly produces television shows in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Slusser is currently working on a half-hour instructional video about interviewing children in court, targeted at judges and lawyers. She plans to use what she learned from making What Jennifer Knew to teach legal professionals how to deal with young witnesses in their own courtrooms.Comments powered by Disqus
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