RICHMOND, MARCH 4 -- As part of a group of bills aimed at helping prosecutors of child abuse cases, legislation allowing child victims of sexual assault to testify outside the presence of the alleged abuser passed the Senate today and was sent to the governor to sign into law.
According to the sponsors, some of the measures are meant to encourage children's testimony by preventing them from being intimidated by their abusers.
"This collection of bills is important because the judicial process . . . victimizes the child again, because some inappropriate rules of evidence prevent the truth from coming out," said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Mount Vernon), Senate sponsor of the legislation. "Prosecutors said they were losing cases because the child clammed up."
The package includes bills, approved by the Senate and pending in a House committee, that would allow the admission into evidence of a videotaped statement by a child in abuse cases under certain circumstances.
The new rules would apply to children 12 years old or younger, who could make a videotaped statement to an interviewer chosen by the local child protective services office. The child would have to be available for cross-examination, possibly by closed-circuit television, unless the child could not testify because he or she is disabled, too afraid to speak or would suffer severe emotional trauma.
Two bills approved by the Senate today, one on criminal proceedings, which that now goes to Gov. Gerald L. Baliles and another on civil proceedings, which goes back to the House with minor changes, would allow a child to testify about alleged abuse in a room outside the courtroom.
The child's attorney and the defendant's attorney would be in the room with the child, but the defendent would stay in the courtroom and watch the testimony by closed-circuit television. Defendants would have a means for conveying questions to their attorney during the child's testimony.
Gartlan said he had been trying for years to get such legislation passed but that this year's package evolved out of a legislative study, giving it a better shot.
In a related matter, a Senate panel first killed and then approved on an 8-to-7 vote a bill to enable someone unfairly accused of child abuse or neglect to gain access to Virginia Department of Social Services records on the case with an eye toward suing the accuser. A court would have to rule that there was reason to believe the accusation had been malicious.
Patricia Sykes, representing the department, said officials had serious concerns about the bill because they feared it would have a chilling effect on reports of child abuse and neglect.
The measure, proposed by Del. S. Vance Wilkins Jr. (R-Amherst) and approved by the House, is intended to discourage people from making malicious and unfounded reports. With the narrow approval of the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee, it goes to an uncertain fate on the Senate floor.