In the past few weeks, the United States Supreme Court issued a number of important rulings. Two of these decisions — on healthcare subsidies and marriage equality — have commanded the lion’s share of attention from the press and public. But a decision on a more obscure legal principle may be most significant for victims’ rights advocates, making it easier for prosecutors to bring child abuse charges without the young victims having to testify in court.
The Confrontation Clause, found in the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, guarantees criminal defendants the right to be confronted with the witnesses against them. In essence, this means that when the prosecution presents testimonial evidence against a person, the accused has a constitutional right to cross-examine the person giving that testimony. Confrontation Clause issues most often arise when a witness is unavailable or unable to testify at trial, and the prosecution seeks to introduce their prior statements or testimony. Such was the case in Ohio v. Clark, where the defendant Darius Clark stood accused of abusing his girlfriend’s 18 month and 3 year old children. When the three year old was taken to preschool with visible injuries, he told his teachers that Clark had hurt him. The school reported the abuse, and Ohio authorities charged him with multiple counts of assault, endangering children and domestic violence. Under Ohio law, the children were considered too young to testify; instead, the prosecution introduced evidence of the three year old’s statements to his teachers. After Clark was convicted and sentenced to 28 years’ imprisonment, he appealed on the basis that the introduction of the child’s statements violated his constitutional right to confront the witnesses against him (because the child did not testify in court, he could not be cross-examined/confronted). The Ohio Supreme Court agreed with Clark, and reversed his decision. But in a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court held that the introduction of this evidence did not violate the Confrontation Clause. The Court reasoned that when the teachers asked the child who had hurt him, it was not to gather evidence for a criminal case — but to protect a vulnerable child. If a guardian was abusing him, the school could not release the child to him at the end of the day. The Court further found that statements by young children will rarely implicate the Confrontation Clause, as they do not understand the legal system and typically are not considered competent to testify. Finally, because the child was speaking to his teachers, and not to the police, the statements could be admitted — even though teachers are mandatory reporters of child abuse. The decision created a clear standard for lower courts to follow when determining when to admit evidence of a child’s statements about abuse.
This ruling is a resounding victory for victims of child abuse and all who advocate for them.
Prior to this decision, if a child could not testify in court, there was a possibility that their abuser would walk free if their statements to others about their abuse could not be admitted in court. Now, the Supreme Court has made it clear that when young children tell teachers (and potentially other trusted adults) about their abuse, it will be admissible in court. While the decision is more legally complex than can be presented here, the upshot is that it will likely result in more prosecution of child abusers. For our organization and all others who advocate for child victims of abuse, this ruling is incredibly positive.
As always, we encourage parents and caregivers to learn more about the signs and symptoms of abuse in children, and to talk to children about these issues in an age-appropriate manner. We also offer free education and training programs for schools, community groups and other organizations. If you or someone you love has experienced abuse, we are here to help. Call us anytime at 1-888-832-2272 or 1-724-836-1122 for free, confidential assistance.