PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — Child witnesses have the right to a safe courtroom, South Dakota state legislators agreed during an initial bill hearing on Thursday (1/26/23).
The Senate Judiciary committee unanimously voted to move forward with a legal amendment that would provide extra support to court witnesses under the age of 16 who are survivors of sexual violence, like rape and trafficking. The bill builds on a closed-circuit television clause of a child welfare law and would grant kids counsel during testimony, physical distance from a defendant who has allegedly abused them, psychological support — like a trusted person or an emotional support animal — to be present, and taking necessary breaks.
Republican Sen. Tim Reed, the bill’s prime sponsor, broke down these provisions, emphasizing that children should be treated with softer gloves when it comes to testifying.
“When sexual abuse and trafficking cases are tried in court, we must protect the victim and make sure that justice is served for that very young victim.”
Several members of the public testified during Thursday’s hearing, including Tifanie Petro, the director of advocacy and prevention for the Children’s Home Child Advocacy Center, which has served children impacted by trauma for years.
“It is unreasonable for us professionals to continue to ask children to adjust to a world in the justice system that was not designed for them in mind,” she said.
Attorney Lara Roetzel also advocated for the bill — championing the rights of child sexual abuse victims, who she said are some of the bravest humans she’s ever met. She highlighted her prosecution of Theodore Guzman, in which she called four child sexual assault survivors to testify in a courtroom where they stood less than eight feet from the defendant.
“I didn’t think the youngest would be able to do it. She was seven at the time of the trial,” said Roetzel. “But justice demanded that I try her on the stand if I wanted to get a conviction on that count. Six minutes she stood in the doorway sobbing.”
A sole opponent to the bill argued that one proposed change was unconstitutional, referring to a section in the bill that would have allowed a witness to have a third party intervene between him or herself and the defendant, should the defendant represent himself. The committee agreed to strike that amendment, pushing the bill on.
At least 13 other states already have advanced protections available when children are required to testify in court. The Center for Prevention of Child Maltreatment estimates that 4,000 children experience sexual abuse in South Dakota each year and said it is one of the most underreported crimes nationally.