COOS COUNTY – Now that school has started, the Kids HOPE Center expects its caseload of reported child sex abuse to skyrocket by nearly 30 percent.
In The World's continuing series of looking at what happens at the center, forensic interviewer Scott Snyder sat down to talk about his part of the process.
Though only around 5 percent of cases go on to prosecution, due to lack of evidence, Snyder said more and more cases are going to court. In fact, he pointed at August as being one of the busiest months where he was required in court to testify.
“A forensic interviewer's job is gathering information from a child in a non-leading way, in a fact-finding way, and in a way that is legally sound so it can be used in court later,” Snyder said, describing it to be like an hourglass. “It starts out open-ended, if they know why they are here and if anyone talked to them about this. Once the child gives you information, you can narrow it down and ask more focused questions. Once you get that information, you go back to the open ended piece.”
Before finding himself at the center, he spent 20 years in law enforcement at the Coos Bay Police Department and nine of those years as a detective. There he dealt mostly with sex crimes for both children and adults. After retiring, he worked as a truancy officer for the school district and when the job as a forensic interviewer came up at the center, he took it because he wanted to keep helping people, especially kids.
The interview room at the center is welcoming, quiet, and warm, aesthetically comfortable for children. It gives them room to play with toys, books, and to draw, all while Snyder asks questions.
Above are two cameras. One is focused on the child and can zoom in to watch their hands, what they are drawing, and their tears.
The other camera records the room and can follow the child if they are walking around.
A representative of Department of Human Services (DHS) or law enforcement are usually always watching two doors down the hall in the viewing room, where video feed is being recorded to be used in court, ensuring that the child doesn't have to repeat themselves and relive the horror.
“The idea is to let them feel as comfortable as possible, that where they are is a safe place," Snyder said.
Toward the end of an interview, Snyder takes a break to speak with either DHS or law enforcement, depending on who is watching, to see if there were any questions they wanted asked.
“It's a good way to make sure I didn't miss anything,” he said.
Of course, it also gives them a chance to take people into custody if the offender brought the child to the center for the interview.
“It hasn't happened often, but there is a rule that the offender can't be here because it means the child is less likely to talk,” Snyder said.
Though it sounds like a quick process, it's not. It is difficult for victims to talk about what happened. If they don't divulge information in the first session with Snyder, he will see them a second or third time before recommending therapy. On one occasion, it took a child six weeks of seeing a therapist before the center was notified that he was ready to talk.
“It also comes down to the language you use with the child,” he said. “My personality is such where most kids feel I am a safe person to talk to, but you have to build a rapport. Every kid is different.”
Snyder described that difference when he interviews a 17-year-old, who knows why they are there and are ready to talk. However, when a 3-year-old comes in, their language is younger, sometimes they use different names for body parts.
Snyder has been trained to deal with both scenarios through attending the Oregon Child Forensic Interview Training (OCFIT), basic training in Portland, and advanced training in San Diego, Calif. His training is also ongoing, mainly through the Oregon Child Abuse Summit that takes place every April.
One of the more difficult aspects of the job is that if there isn't enough physical evidence, preventing it from becoming a he-said-she-said situation, then the case isn't taken to court. Of course, every victim and family is helped through therapy and any needs they may have, but Snyder recommends to parents who come across child sex abuse during or shortly after to hold onto the evidence.
“Hang onto those clothes and package them properly,” he said. “If there is blood involved, that needs to be packaged differently. Put that in paper, not plastic because plastic will develop moisture and rot out. Preservation of evidence is huge. If it happened in the bedroom, get the sheets. Also, if the child is opening up to you, listen and take notes after but don't ask leading questions because that can mess up a case very quickly.”
Even if evidence is obtained, it could take a child years before they talk about what happened. He had one case where a 17-year-old came to the center for something that happened when they were 10. Either way, he has a message for both the victims and family.
“There's nothing to be ashamed about,” Snyder said. “Mostly people don't come forward due to fear and shame, but they didn't cause this, they are not responsible. We have a safe place here and a compassionate group of people, we are under the umbrella of Bay Area Hospital, we are here to help kids and families and if something has happened, don't be afraid to make the call to law enforcement or DHS to get the ball rolling. And another thing . . . it's never too late to talk about it.”