Donna Meyer and her team just might have the most challenging job at Family & Children’s Aid. As the Director and primary forensic interviewer for the Multi-disciplinary Investigation Team (MIT), she is called to interview children in cases of suspected child sexual abuse and severe physical abuse that rise to the level of criminal or when a child witnesses a violent crime.
“All the folks that work on the MIT are exposed to pretty horrific things on a regular basis,” notes Donna. “They are exposed to the worst of the worst in people. Things you could never imagine people doing, let alone to a child. I don’t think I could have done this job and see what I see when my kids were younger. I would have never let them out of my sight.”
Donna’s job is to try in one session to conduct a forensic-level, court-worthy investigation. How the information is gathered is what makes it rise to the level of a forensic interview. “It is a developmentally appropriate, fact-finding interview, conducted in a supportive, non-leading manner, to assist the various disciplines participating in our team and minimize the secondary trauma to the kids. Police and DCF use our reports and videotapes; the medical and mental health people use the information gathered; and ultimately it can be used in a court trial if the case is brought to court.”
Created by state statute, there is one team per judicial jurisdiction. Each investigative team must have at minimum, a representative of law enforcement, a representative of the Department of Children & Families (DCF), a victim advocate, a medical professional with substantial experience in the diagnosis and treatment of abused or neglected children, a mental health professional with substantial experience in the treatment of abused or neglected children, and a team coordinator. This coordinated effort reduces re-traumatization of the child and increases the likelihood of successful prosecution.
“What used to happen before these teams,” explains Donna, “is, a child would make a disclosure and ten people would have to interview the child. Professionals from child protective services, law enforcement, and legal and medical systems interviewed the child separately and repeatedly in police stations and other environments intimidating to children. These interviews were done to meet the diverse, and sometimes conflicting requirements of the agencies involved, rather than the needs of the child.”
“The child would have to tell the story ten times. Of course there would be variations in the child’s stories; that used to make the child seem less credible. The more people that talk to you about something, the more likely the story is to be contaminated. And the victim seldom received the support and services needed. A child abuse victim was often traumatized by the investigative process of the agencies and people intent on helping the child. Now, it’s a much more child-friendly, comprehensive and coordinated approach.”
“Our job is to help support that victim and to make sure that we don’t wrongly accuse someone. Sometimes you know something happened to this child but they are not ready to say. You can’t just go on hunches in our system; you have to have evidence.”
“It can be very draining. Especially the times where I’ve had some really bad interviews. Bad in the sense where I’ve had to listen to some really horrific things that you wouldn’t believe someone would do to a child, or bad in the sense that I know while the child is telling me what happened that they are going to have to be removed from their home, and no kid wants to be removed from their home.“
As difficult and heartbreaking as Donna’s job can be, she is refueled by the “little moments". “Like when the system has worked well and the child is receiving the treatment they need and you see the child thriving. I want the child to know they are not standing alone; I am here for them.”
“There was one boy who didn’t want to talk at all, but eventually did tell me what happened. After our interview he stood up and said, “I feel taller now!” You could see a weight was lifted off him. That is rewarding.”
“It is also really rewarding when a perpetrator is held accountable. I know they are not going to just wake up one morning and say, “I don’t feel like perpetrating anymore.” But I also know if I do my job well, if I’ve done my interview well, and my job on the stand well, then the perpetrators will be held accountable.”
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is that no matter what Donna hears, she must remain calm and neutral. She feels her reaction is the first step towards healing. “No matter what they tell me, my reaction is, “There is nothing you are going to say in this room that is going to upset me, embarrass me, or make me mad.” I am not making terrible faces or gasping. That is the beginning of the removing of the shame.”
“If I were to say I “love” my job, it would almost be like saying I love what happens to these kids. I can say what I’m doing is necessary and do I get satisfaction out of it. I don’t know what else I would be doing. After 18 years, it does take a personal toll, but I think I am still am optimist at heart, but I am a realistic optimist now.”
“I work with really good people every day. It reminds me that there are really good people out there. One person can make a difference. I have seen that over and over again. Kids that have gone through the most horrific things, sometimes all it takes it that one caring person. As a kid they may not be able to change anything. But the one, solid person who was there for them, who believed in them, that can make a difference for them. I believe one person can make a difference.”