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June 2013: Reducing Trauma to Victims during Prosecution

For the past several months, our newsletter and webinar series explored the road to recovery for survivors of abduction and exploitation from the perspectives of survivors of family abduction, victim advocates, law enforcement officers, experts on forensic interviewing and experienced prosecutors. The series examined ways in which the professionals who serve victims can reduce future trauma during the investigation, recovery, and reunification process. To conclude the series, we are taking a look at the process of helping children disclose and ultimately testify while drawing connections between multidisciplinary approaches and effective support and preparation for child victims in court.

In this month’s newsletter we feature June’s webinar entitled, “Helping Child Victims Testify,” with Mark Ells, Director, Midwest Child Welfare Implementation Center. Mr. Ells explores the disclosure process, victim preparation for court, and developmental considerations that often affect testimony. Julie Kenniston, MSW, LSW, Butler County Children Services, Mason, OH, provides an article on the dynamics of forensic interviewing, implications for investigation, and ways to conduct interviews so they cause the least amount of trauma to victims. In conclusion, we feature an article from Erin Runnion the founder of The Joyful Child Foundation, whose 5 year old daughter Samantha was abducted and murdered. Erin shares her gripping tale of grief that was turned into triumph following the death of her daughter.


Helping Child Victims Testify Webinar

On June 19th, 2013, we released a webinar presented by Mark Ells on prepping child victims for court. Mark’s presentation provides some legal considerations for ensuring that court proceedings are child sensitive through the application of the federal rules of evidence and pretrial motions. The presentation also explores the disclosure process and developmental considerations that often effect testimony including language, memory, and trauma.

To view this recorded webinar, please visit MECP’s Webinar Page.


Forensic Interviews in Abduction Cases

Provided by: Julie Kenniston, MSW, LSW

When a child is missing, a whirlwind of activity occurs with fear and hope coexisting for the family, investigators and the community at large.  Once the child is found, there is much celebration because the investigation is seen as a success.  However, in some long term abduction situations, recovery may be its own trauma for the child. Amidst the celebration, the child’s needs can get lost.

In forensic interviewing, the focus is on the child.  From room arrangement to question strategies, the interview is constructed to take into account the child’s development and other issues impacting the child.  This is the same mindset that should guide consideration of the child’s transition from abduction to recovery.  Interviewing children post abduction requires taking into account the dynamics of abduction and recovery. Investigators can find guidance in these dynamics and how best to enact recoveries by learning about the Kid Gloves approach.[1]

Once the recovery event is completed in a clinically sound, child-focused way, plans can be made for interviewing the child about the abduction experience.  Planning should include the timing and location of the interview, therapeutic support, question strategy and identifying the investigative data needed from the child forensic interview.

Dynamics and Implications for Interviews

There are differences and similarities among different types of abductions.   In stranger abduction, there is no prior relationship between abductor and child, nor any context for the abduction event.  In some cases of family abduction, the child likewise has no relationship with the abductor and the dynamics are similar to stranger abduction.  When the abductor is known to the child, the reasons provided to explain the break with the child’s previous life and disappearance of the child’s family fit umbrella categories identified by Take Root as “The Three D’s: Dead, Dangerous and Disinterested.”[2]  In cases where a child is concealed, made to fear discovery and given a new identity, it is important for interviewers to understand the Three D’s and the companion concepts of Identity Rupture and Manufactured Reality, which explains how the abducted child loses the ability for independent reality testing.  This has huge relevance in forensic interviews.

We ask children to promise to tell the truth but these children are not sure what the truth is.  They have been given filtered information and rationalizations for living a life of lies.  Children whose names are changed are taught to lie about their past to avoid detection.  Some children are kept secluded, with no sense of what is occurring in the outside world.  Forensic interviewers who tend to engage children quickly in interviews might find that these children have extreme difficulty trusting.  Interviewers should be clear about the purpose of the interview and make sure that the child is feeling safe in the physical interview space.  The interviewer should be patient and use a consistent, genuine, empathetic approach.  Recovery does not automatically mean that the child is (or feels) safe.  In certain circumstances, recovery can be more traumatic for the child than the original abduction. It might take more than one interview to establish rapport and gather information.

Implications for Investigations

Given that defendants have a right to a speedy trial, investigators must balance the needs of the child with the needs of the investigation.  Children should not be rushed into interviews.  Having a clinical person on the team who is trained in abduction dynamics can help guide the proper timing of the forensic interview.

The longer the abduction timeframe, the more data there is to gather.  Investigators need to identify what information is needed for the case.  Many chargeable offenses can occur during extended abductions.  The child cannot be expected to give a detailed account of every moment of a lengthy time away.  The investigative team must identify what information is needed and realize that if chargeable offenses were frequent (i.e., sexual exploitation, rape, torture, pornography, etc.), the child might have difficulty providing detailed accounts.  For example, the abducted child who was raped daily over a period of months will not be able to offer a narrative account of each rape.

Recovery is a huge life event for an abduction victim.  An investigator should consider the pros and cons of interviewing the child soon after recovery.  In many cases, the abducting person has been identified and the statement of the child comes after much evidence of criminal activity is already found.  To obtain good information in the forensic interview, the child’s needs should be the primary determining factor in planning the interview with the child.


A Mother’s Grief: Erin Runnion’s Story of Triumph

Provided by: Erin Runnion

No words can describe the pain of losing my five-year-old daughter, Samantha, but I share my story because there are positive lessons to be learned from how well law enforcement handled the case.   It was because of their compassion, professionalism, and excellent communication with our family that we were able to focus on our grief and how we were going to honor our sweet joyful child.

Samantha’s abduction was witnessed by her six year-old friend, Sarah, who gave an impressive description of the suspect and the vehicle.  Sarah said a car pulled up while they were playing outside.  A man got out and asked the girls if they would help him find his lost puppy.  He rushed at Samantha and picked her up.  She kicked, screamed, and had the presence of mind to yell to Sarah, “Go tell my Grandma!” as she was thrown into the car.  Less than 24 hours later, a distraught hiker on a remote cliff about 65 miles away phoned 9-1-1 to report that he had come upon the lifeless, naked body of a little girl.

Sarah ran from the scene to her mother and then they ran to my mother, who called 9-1-1 to report the abduction.  She said an officer arrived at the door in less than five minutes and the helicopters were already in the area.  Our entire condominium community was taped off by the time I got home from work about forty-five minutes later.  We spoke with officers and they gave us their cards and cell phone numbers in case we needed to reach them for any reason, but they also assured us that officers would be stationed outside our home all night.  They were scanning and faxing Samantha’s photo from a machine propped on top of a police vehicle outside.  We were told they had already alerted all neighboring agencies and the border patrol, but they were also sending her picture and the description Sarah had given to the media.  There was no Amber Alert in California yet, but the Sheriff’s Department had a similar plan in place and that is why they were able to coordinate and mobilize so quickly.

Early the following morning, the Sheriff and several highly ranked officers came to our home to meet with us.  They told us that they were going to be holding a press conference outside and they would do this regularly until they found Samantha because it would help to put pressure on the perpetrator and increase the likelihood that someone would recognize Samantha.  The public information officer said he would brief us ahead of time so that we would know, in advance, what would be said.  We were grateful that we wouldn’t have to watch TV to learn what was happening.  The Sheriff said that not only was his entire agency focused on finding Samantha, but that the FBI, California Highway Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Patrol, and every local law enforcement agency was engaged as well.

The public information officer told me that the decision was mine and it was no problem either way, but he thought it might be helpful to the investigation if I would speak to the media.  He said it would help engage the public in the search for Samantha.  He assured me that he would not allow any questions and he would stand with me.  We walked out the door to dozens of officers all around the house.  We turned the corner and there were media vans and trucks lining the street with reporters, and massive microphones lined along the sidewalk.  The public information officer laid down the ground rules with the reporters; I spoke, and he walked me back inside.  Weeks later, he helped me navigate my first few interviews, ensuring that producers were respectful and I didn’t feel pressured to discuss things that I wasn’t ready to talk about.

When it came time to interview individual family members, a Captain took the time to explain that in nearly 90% of all crimes against children, the perpetrator is someone the family knows and trusts.  Therefore, they had to start with the parents, learn about all of the people who may have had an opportunity to develop a special interest in Samantha, and then work their way out from our inner family circle.  We were reassured that while this interview process was happening, there were countless investigators pursuing other leads and continuing the search.  Sadly, after less than an hour, news about the hiker’s 9-1-1 call reached the Sheriff’s Department and all hope was lost.  Later that evening, a Captain took the time to explain that because they were no longer looking for Samantha, this was now a homicide investigation and their approach would be a little different.  We were told that they were determined to catch the killer and they were going to ensure that the case against him was airtight so that there wasn’t a chance of him getting off on a technicality or anything like that.  They wanted us to understand that although we could still ask them questions, they may not be able to tell us everything until after the trial was over.  Taking the time to explain why we might not get the answers we so desperately wanted right away increased our trust and cooperation throughout the process.

The Sheriff’s Department had set up a mobile command center in a parking lot across the street, a good distance from our complex.  In the following ten days, over 2,500 leads were generated from that command center that resulted in 250 discovery logs, but just one led directly to the perpetrator.

The day after Samantha was found, a woman called the tip-line to say that she knew who took Samantha.  He was a twenty-six year-old factory line supervisor who, just one year earlier, had been acquitted of multiple counts of continuous sexual abuse against two six-year-old girls; one of those girls was her step-daughter and the other girl had moved out of our condominium complex just two months earlier.  The Sheriff’s Department moved quickly to coordinate surveillance on this suspect who lived in a neighboring county.  All of the agencies involved cooperated with one another.  He was arraigned exactly one week after Samantha’s abduction.

That day we also met with the District Attorney, who explained what to expect from the trial process.  We were told it would take 3-5 years to go to trial because they would seek the death penalty.  We were introduced to our Victim Advocate who walked us through the restitution paperwork so that our family would be eligible for mental health services in the years ahead should we ever need them.  Within weeks we were introduced to the whole team of attorneys and aids who would be handling different aspects of the case: the motions, briefs, DNA expertise, and the primary prosecuting attorney.  We were told that there would be countless hearings about venue, requests to delay the trial, and challenges to specific items in the discovery logs.  We were assured that an investigator would call us every time a motion of any significance was going to be made, so that we could attend only those hearings that we felt were important.  They explained that the ‘Kelly Hearings’ would take several weeks, during which the judge would rule on whether specific evidence would be allowed in the trial.  My husband and I attended every day of these hearings because we wanted to know if any information was going to be withheld from the jury.  Luckily, we had a great judge, who allowed the defense a great deal of latitude to ensure it was a fair trial and nothing could be overturned on appeal, but virtually all evidence was allowed.  In July, 2005, the perpetrator was convicted on all counts and sentenced to death.  The first of two mandatory appeals was filed in July 2012, within days of the tenth anniversary of her death, and what would have been Samantha’s 16th birthday.

Due to the compassionate professionalism and thorough communication from law enforcement and the district attorney’s office, my family had total confidence in their ability to investigate and ultimately prosecute the case.  They couldn’t prevent Samantha’s death, but they did everything in their power to mitigate the trauma to those of us left behind. I believe that should always be at the forefront of law enforcement’s approach to crime victims.  The cooperation among multiple agencies, the thoughtful communication with the family, and diligent investigation and thorough preparation for trial ensured that the justice system worked for Samantha and our family.  We started The Joyful Child Foundation – In Memory of Samantha Runnion to empower thousands of parents, teachers, and children and to educate them about sexual abuse prevention programs.  I hope this example of an exemplary law enforcement response to a tragic situation will be the model for other agencies in creating or evaluating their plans.

Together, we can stop crimes against children.  In Samantha’s words, “Be Brave.”


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We Want to Hear From You!

MECP invites you to share your stories about your organization’s contributions to the juvenile justice field. It is our goal to expand awareness about all the issues surrounding missing children and child exploitation as well as increase understanding of the impact of your work — its value for practice, policy, ongoing research, advocacy and more importantly, for youth, their families and their communities. We’d also like to promote networking opportunities so organizations across the country can connect with one another.

Help others by sharing your success story. The most captivating will be featured in our monthly newsletter. To submit your story, please visit us online here. Thank you for all you do to make a positive difference in our children’s lives.



1. Haviv, L. Kid gloves for handling abducted children: a child-centered overview. Take Root 2007.

2. Haviv, L. Re-framing family abduction. Take Root 2007.