KANSAS CITY — A Kansas City center that interviews children to gather information for law enforcement officers investigating crimes is seeing a sharp increase in the referral of youngsters who say they were abused or witnessed the abuse of another child.
The increase doesn't mean more physical child abuse cases are occurring in the county but instead reflects a change in focus following a directive from Jackson County's top prosecutor, said Beth Banker, director of the Child Protection Center.
Banker said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has "made it clear she takes physical abuse in Jackson County seriously, and, if warranted, she wants to see prosecutions."
The center recorded a 78 percent increase in referrals from law enforcement in physical child abuse cases in the first six months of 2013, compared with the same time in 2012, The Kansas City Star reported Monday. And it had a 59 percent increase in referrals to interview children who have witnessed child abuse.
The Child Protection Center is a nonprofit that has provided evidence in thousands of child sex abuse investigations since 1996.
Baker, whose husband serves on the center's board, said the idea is to save troubled children from further crimes.
"If cases are out there with children with broken bones, burns, bites or discipline that went too far, they should be here," Baker said.
The center interviews about 800 children each year, with workers trained to interview a young child about his or her experiences without asking leading questions to reach a predetermined outcome.
"We interview children," said Lisa Mizell, chief executive officer for the center. "Law enforcement interrogates witnesses. There's a big difference."
With the help of the center, the child has to tell the story only once, unless he or she must testify at trial. Previously, a child might have had to repeat the story before trial to parents, teachers, state social welfare workers, police officers, prosecutors and defense lawyers.
"If you keep asking the kids over and over again, they'll think you don't believe them," said Brandy Hodgkin, a forensic interviewer at the center.
One Kansas City criminal defense lawyer, Lance Sandage, who resigned from the center's board when he accepted a case on which it had conducted interviews, said he considers the information coming out of the center almost as reliable as DNA testing. It can be used to exonerate a suspect as easily as it can convict a defendant, he said.
"It's almost like a crime lab," Sandage said. "It's the best way to extract the information from a child to make a decision about whether to prosecute."