DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — The bare-walled and plainly decorated room on the second floor of Dover-Foxcroft Police Department might not appear kid-friendly, but law enforcement officials believe victimized children may find some solace and justice inside.
The station is home to a new interview room that area police agencies will use during investigations of alleged sexual assaults against children. It’s part of an effort in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties to change how the state handles interviews involving children and “make it less of an interrogation,” according to Gretchen Ziemer of Rape Response Services.
“Far too often, children are interviewed multiple times, and that causes really undue stress,” Ziemer said during an interview Friday at the police department.
“When a child is involved in a sexual abuse case, there could be four or five different agencies involved that are concerned or need to talk to the child,” said Dover-Foxcroft police Sgt. Todd Lyford. One brief interview is far easier for a child to cope with emotionally than several interrogations revisiting the same traumatic event, he said.
In 2010, as part of a directive given by Penobscot and Piscataquis county District Attorney Christopher Almy, groups who deal with these sorts of cases began training with CornerHouse, a Michigan-based nonprofit that specializes in training agencies across the nation and globe in how to deal with forensic interviews of children.
CornerHouse stresses the importance of collecting the information you need from the child in a quick, efficient and legally sound manner, allowing the child to tell his or her story once and then leave.
“There’s concern about children changing their stories if they’re asked the same things over and over again,” Ziemer said. “Kids will want to do what the adult wants them to do or say what the adult wants them to say.”
Inside the room, there are no distractions. Plain walls, no toys, no pictures, no bright colors. Just a table and chairs, an old couch, a large pad of paper for drawing and writing in the corner, and an inconspicuous pair of cameras and microphones overhead.
That’s intentional, according to Lyford.
“You don’t really want to give them anything else to concentrate on that might throw their focus off what you’re talking about,” Lyford said. Even the best interviewer might be able to hold a young child’s attention for only 10 or 15 minutes, he said.
The interviewer gets on the same level as the child. If the child is more comfortable sitting on the floor, the interviewer sits down with them. The interviewer needs to keep the child focused and on task, getting their story.
“You want to get as much information about what occurred [as possible], and you want to do it without leading them, without giving them a question that they can just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Lyford said. “You want them to explain what happened.”
Other interested agencies, such as state police or child protective services personnel, watch on a large computer screen in a room on the opposite side of the building. Those looking on can send questions to the interviewer through text messages without disrupting the interview and risking distracting the child, Lyford said. A high-definition overhead camera capable of rotating and tilting to focus on any part of the room, records the interview.
“The interview isn’t just what’s being said, it’s body language, it’s how engaged somebody is,” Ziemer said.
The room has been used for one interview so far since the audio and visual equipment was installed three weeks ago. It is now open to use for any agencies in the area that think it would be useful to an investigation.
Ziemer said the Bangor Police Department has a similar room that it will use to practice similar interview techniques. The Hancock County Sheriff’s Department has been working with state police to develop a similar interview space and practices there. Cooperation is key because it doesn’t make sense to have one of these rooms in every police department — many don’t have enough room or cases to make it a worthwhile investment, she said.
“This is a place for them to be able to tell their story in a safe way with somebody who’s nonthreatening, who’s a safe person,” Ziemer said.
To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence service provider.