Getting It Right

A New Approach To Investigating Allegations

Over the past 10 years, investigations into child sexual abuse cases have changed dramatically. 48 Hours Correspondent Susan Spencer reports on the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center, which is on the cutting edge of this transformation.

The center was founded 10 years ago by police detective Bill Walsh, who says he was inspired by past mistakes. Here, and at some 400 such centers now operating around the country, the focus is on the facts. In the past, children's claims were often not investigated with the proper skepticism. It was sometimes a foregone conclusion that the accused was guilty.

"There may have been a tendency in the past to be more concerned about the child's feelings," says Walsh. "And not challenge them when they said things that didn't seem quite possible."

When children come here, they often have been abused, and are scared. Before any interviews begin, the staff tries to put kids at ease by giving them toys and new clothes. The interrogation room where police talk to children is just upstairs from the center, which helps minimize the stress.

"It allows us to conduct these interviews in a very coordinated fashion," says Walsh, who notes that the interview forms the cornerstone of the case.

For the interview, the child is brought into a room with few distractions. The room is equipped with a one-way mirror. On the other side of that mirror, a police detective records the interview and evaluates what the child is saying.

These days, detectives are more careful to find out what the child thinks occurred. Interviewing techniques have progressed a great deal since the '80s, Walsh says. No longer do investigators blindly accept what children say, nor do they pressure kids to tell a particular version of the truth, one that fits into a preconceived idea of the case.

Says Walsh: "In the late '80s, people were talking about 'believe the children.' I understand where they're coming from. But again, my role is an investigator, so we can't go on the assumption that is exactly what is turns out to be."

Children, he says, are very suggestible, so investigators must be doubly careful. "We make it clear here it's a success if they come out of there and say nothing happened," Walsh says.

When a case is brought, Walsh says, he gets a conviction 90 percent of the time. Unlike a decade ago, these cases usually involve family members, not ritual abuse with scores of kids.

"We need to approach these cases from a neutral standpoint," Walsh says. "And then apply what we would apply in any criminal justice investigation, before we start locking people up."

A Family Accused: Home
Part I: The Amiraults' Story || Part II: Still Fighting
Part III: Getting It Right