Overcoming obstacles with teenage crime victims

By Hilary Wright
Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Dallas County

Teenagers! (Imagine that word in a flustered, frustrated tone.) Amiright?

            They can be arrogant, impatient, and disrespectful. They are children in nearly adult bodies. They can make stupid choices and have absolutely no concept of consequences. All of these things can certainly be true.
            But they are something else too: a vulnerable victim population.
            Teenagers make for high-risk crime victims, and this group can be under-served in the criminal justice system. That’s because some people (potential jurors, for instance) might say teenagers shouldn’t be considered victims of sexual assault in cases in which they “consented” to a sexual encounter. Others simply don’t believe teenagers, even if one is telling the truth about being the victim of a horrible crime.
            In this article, I lay out some of the common problems prosecutors face in dealing with teenage victims, some solutions to those problems, and a few things to consider in your next case where a teen is involved. I handled exclusively human trafficking and child exploitation cases in Dallas County from 2015 to 2017 before I returned to a felony trial court. During that time, I prosecuted 109 of these cases to disposition, and 84 percent of that caseload involved crimes against teenage victims. And while teenagers can be victims of any type of crime, this article will focus on sexual assault, domestic sex trafficking, and online exploitation.

Decision-making and appreciating consequences
More and more studies of the human brain and its stages of development show that the brain maturation period extends from age 10 through 24.[1] Additionally, the brain goes through a “rewiring” process that continues until a person is around 25 years old.[2] The prefrontal cortex, specifically, has been found to develop late.[3] This part of the brain handles important aspects of being an adult, such as controlling impulses, delaying gratification, modulating intense emotions, foreseeing and weighing possible consequences of behavior, inhibiting inappropriate behavior, strategizing and planning, organizing thoughts, and solving problems.[4] An underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, such as that in a teenager, can cause a person to be driven more by emotion than rational thought. There is a remarkable lack of impulse control in the teen brain, which means a teenager may be unable to appreciate consequences to the degree we would expect in an adult. It may lead to a potentially more vulnerable victim, but it can also inform how the teenager responds to law enforcement’s intervention in that teen’s life and prosecution of any crime where that teenager is a victim or witness.
            While you may be able to help another adult understand this concept, it’s unlikely you can convince a teenager that she has an underdeveloped brain. For example, I dealt with a younger teen who had shared naked photos of herself online with a stranger. He convinced her to run away with him to another state so they could be together. She found a different stranger (also online) to give her a ride to the bus station. That second man pretended to be a teen online to get her to trust him and said his “father” was going to pick her up. When he pulled up to her house, she ran out without shoes and got in his car. The man who picked her up sexually assaulted her. He then spoke on the phone with the man who was manipulating her into running away to him. He sexually assaulted her while the out-of-state man listened on the phone, and then put her on a bus. The girl’s parents didn’t find out until she was several states away and finally got scared enough to call them. Clearly, she did not make wise decisions, let alone foresee any consequences—she didn’t even put shoes on before leaving the house!
This doesn’t mean teenagers shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. When a 17-year-old makes the decision to rob someone at gunpoint, he or she will face prosecution for an aggravated robbery charge despite his or her ability to truly comprehend a life sentence.
            There is no pill to give a teen victim to make her brain magically and instantly mature. Even going through all the stages of a criminal case might not be enough to prevent a teen from making the same mistakes. Teens are vulnerable to drug use, peer pressure, and irrational decision-making. They are also prone to ignoring counsel from the very adults who care about them most.

Lack of cooperation with adults
Teenagers not trusting adults becomes our problem when that adult is a stranger with a badge or other state actor and is asking the teenager questions in a room with light so unflattering you don’t even want to take a selfie. When it comes to victims of domestic sex trafficking, teenagers are often groomed to believe that police are the enemy. The trafficker will have convinced the teen not to trust law enforcement. Teenagers will lie to get out of trouble, and when the police are involved, there is trouble.
            Interviewing a teenager is no small feat. Teenagers’ responses range from “I dunno” and “I don’t care” to “Whatever” and a shrug. They do not always appreciate the importance of what is at stake in a criminal case, which can be scary when someone may go to prison for life. They often weren’t focusing on the same things that adults might focus on during the crime and thus cannot give details. They will regurgitate the facts as they heard them from someone else and have no filter for the truth. The opposite can also occur, where they filter what another person told them and put it into their own words with no concept that accuracy is vital to the process.
            Corroboration is key for teenaged victims. What do their text messages reveal? What were they posting on Instagram? What did they say to each other before and after on Kik? What pictures were taken around the time of the offense? Did school records reveal that something in the teenager’s behavior changed? Did attendance or grades drop off around the time of the alleged crime? In a domestic sex trafficking case, recovering the teen often happens during a sting operation where the john is actually a police detective and the teen is caught at the scene of a prostitution date. Because a teenager cannot book a motel room, the registration information is important. So is interviewing the hotel staff. What other traffic has been through the room while the teen was inside? Who else is involved and for how long? When an online predator is involved or a teen is sexually assaulted, there will be digital evidence to comb through. It can confirm a teen victim’s story.
            Interviewing a teenager well after the crime has been committed can be as hard, if not harder, than during the initial investigation. Sometimes we run into the “I’m over it” victim. By now he has likely talked to the police, a service provider, an advocate, a counselor, a parent or guardian (maybe), a friend (maybe), and the prosecutor at least once. There comes a point when they, like many witnesses, just don’t want to deal with it anymore. I have sat across from many a scowling teen who refused to speak to me, no matter what his mom, teacher, or counselor said to convince him otherwise. In one case, a young man developed a relationship with an adult male—a convicted sex offender—whom he met online. The teenager invited that man into his bedroom at night, and the man bought him alcohol and cigarettes. The teen told a school friend about their relationship, and that friend told her mother. Even sitting across from him in the school counselor’s office, the teen victim refused to cooperate with me. He felt that he was old enough to make his own decisions about his sex life. Who was I to punish someone he invited into his bed? It was only through corroborating evidence that we were able to prepare a case well enough for the defendant to plead guilty (again—it was not this perpetrator’s first rodeo with a teenage victim).
            Developing a relationship takes time and patience. Don’t forget that this isn’t just a surly teenager, but a teenaged victim of a terrible crime. This type of victim is not going to trust a prosecutor at first and may never trust one; a victim advocate may run into the same issues in trying to develop a relationship with this category of victim. And in trafficking cases, there is a bond between a teen and a trafficker that goes beyond a romantic or employer-employee relationship. The manipulation that it takes to convince someone to perform sex acts with a stranger for money must be compelling. It can help to point out the manipulation or deceit to the victim to try and weaken that bond during an interview, but you may not see results right away. If the teen has been told you are the enemy, it will take some work to convince her otherwise.
            Helping the victim understand that based on the evidence, she will not get into any legal trouble, may help open a dialogue‚ though the teen will certainly have to live with past decisions and try to move forward. Make sure she knows that she is not in legal trouble for those decisions, and the purpose of the prosecution is to hold responsible the adult for his decisions.[5]
            We just want the truth—good, bad, or ugly. Sometimes using foul language in response to a victim’s foul language, when appropriate, can ease the tension in the room. It can turn the prosecutor into more of a relatable person in the teen’s eyes. We are adults, yes, but we aren’t the teenager’s parents, so easing into the conversation about sex and money, prostitution, or sharing nude pictures online comes from a different place. Sometimes all it takes is treating the teen like an adult with regard to the subject matter. It can help form the bond needed to work together on a case.

Limited access to the teen
You may find that a teenager has run away and there is no way to contact her. Teens caught up in domestic sex trafficking can become wards of the state who are moved from one residential treatment center (RTC) to another. They might not be in school and they might have been moved out of state to live with a relative. An uncooperative witness can sometimes become unavailable too, which presents a major issue if you need the victim to prove a case.
            If Child Protective Services (CPS) is involved in the teen’s life, there may be an issue of custody—the victim may be placed in a state-run home hours away. Caseworkers are primarily focused on what is best for the child, and if a teen in their custody says, “I don’t wanna talk to that prosecutor,” then sometimes that’s the end of it. I’ve driven to the other end of Texas to visit with teens in CPS housing units, and until I sat down in the room with them, I had no indication that they would even say hello to me. Making the effort is important to show both the teen and the guardian that you care. Giving the caseworker multiple ways to reach you can also help. What if on a Sunday morning the victim decides she wants to talk to me? Well, her caseworker will have my email, my work cell number, and permission from me to text or call at any time of day or night. It’s important to establish boundaries with teen victims too. It’s OK, even necessary, for a prosecutor or victim advocate to be clear about when it’s appropriate to call or text, and it might be different for each prosecutor. The important part is your willingness to respond.
            Sometimes access to a teen means getting permission from the parent or guardian to speak with the child. After an offense occurs, some adults want to cut off all communication, whether it’s to protect the teenager’s mental health, to refuse to cooperate with an investigation into a known offender, or something else. This can be a case-ending scenario. Plus, getting permission every time you want to speak to a teen victim can be a struggle. It is a good idea to have written permission in place[6] for you to communicate with the teen about the case or just to check in. Teens with phones may want to reach out when they are ready. This could be at 4 o’clock in the morning. You do not want to delay your reply until you get that permission if you can avoid it. Make sure parameters are set out, such as time of day when it’s acceptable to call, and work within the household rules about a teen’s phone use. I have had cases where the parents work the same hours I do, and the schools required permission to pull the teen out of class. We were able to arrange permission ahead of time and in writing so that all I had to do to talk to the teen was alert the parent earlier in the week about what day I would come by. Then the teen wasn’t surprised when we came around.
            Rarely do teen witnesses have cars, let alone driver’s licenses, so it’s up to us to make the trip to see them. Plus, it can be a burden on any family to stop what they are doing and drive the victim to the courthouse for meetings. Working within the family schedule can show not just the teen but also her parents or guardian that you are considerate of what the prosecution is doing to the family.
            Often, teens have troubles of their own to sort out. Occasionally I’ll reach out to speak to a victim and find out that she’s been detained in a juvenile justice facility for a new offense or runaway charge. This situation comes with a slew of issues, the least of which is now there are two defense attorneys to deal with.

Meet them where they are
We shouldn’t put lipstick on a pig. Meet a teenager where she is. Is a particular teen a well-known liar? So was the Boy Who Cried Wolf, and that last time, there was an actual wolf—the boy was telling the truth. Is the teen addicted to a controlled substance? That could explain a lot of behaviors and may be how the perpetrator was able to commit the crime in the first place. Did the victim go back into the sex trade after this case was filed? Don’t hide from it. I cannot imagine a teenager who ran away from home and was living in different motels rooms, using drugs, and having sex for money who would then be able to go back to school and sit through math class. What does she talk to her peers about now? If she didn’t have a good support system in the first place and no help after law enforcement got involved, she probably doesn’t feel like she has many other options.
            Is the teen a chronic runaway? Is CPS constantly involved in the victim’s household? Does the teen shoplift all of the time? Is he or she sexually active or promiscuous? Accept the truth about these victims and move forward. Most people—teen victims, teen witnesses, and jurors—can tell if someone is not being genuine with them. Meet a teen where he or she is.

General bias against teens
We must confront bias from two fronts: our own bias as prosecutors and any bias potential jurors might have. While some prosecutors cannot handle these types of cases due to the nature of the crime, others shouldn’t handle them. We all strive to come into a case with an open mind, but that would be impossible if we start off unable to believe the victim. Some prosecutors will look at a case where the victim initially lied about the facts and toss out the case immediately. “Credibility issues? Not touching that one!” But owning the fact that the victim lied and understanding his or her motivation for lying can separate a good prosecutor from a great one. I’m not saying that we should sponsor the testimony of a witness who will lie on the witness stand, or that all cases are solid enough to prosecute. There is a difference between a hard case and an un-prosecutable one when it comes to crimes against teens.
            It is important to create a judgment-free environment for teenaged victims. Teens live in a world where judgment is all around—the last place they need to feel it is from the police officer, victim advocate, or prosecutor handling their criminal case. There will be plenty of judgment from the defense side, so knowing the victim and the case’s pitfalls will be important to quell any biases defense counsel might have that are unsupported by the facts. No one likes to be cross-examined. Preparing a teenage witness for this high-stress, emotional event will be important. His or her credibility may be at issue, and the teen may feel attacked. Making him or her aware of this potential attack, practicing taking a breath, and being calm will be key.
            With juries, preparation is important to adequately ascertain biases that people have against teenagers as witnesses or victims. Taking time to discuss how teenagers are generally perceived and whether those perceptions are fair is vital to laying the foundation for a teen’s upcoming testimony. I’ve had some success using a questionnaire before calling the panel into the courtroom. If the potential juror is thinking about an issue in advance, it can help get the conversation going once the subject is brought out during voir dire. Ultimately, it must be confronted face-to-face, and the biases must be exposed.
            One of the first questions I ask a panel is, “Who has teenagers at home?” Find the panelists who have teenage children, and have them answer some questions in front of the panel: Do we trust teenagers to drive a car? To vote? Do they still require guidance at that age? Why? Can you tell when your teenager lies to you? What is their motivation? (That is, do they lie to get into trouble or out of trouble?) Remember, we aren’t trying to change anyone’s mind during voir dire—this line of questioning is about exposing any bias and striking biased jurors for cause on the issue of pre-judging witness credibility or requiring more or a certain type of evidence. Exposing these biases can help find others on the panel who feel the same way. It can also locate solid jurors who will shed light on why this bias exists and whether there is any support for it in reality.
            Remember that we were all teenagers once. We weren’t all liars. We weren’t all uncooperative. If you were the victim of a crime at age 16, you would have wanted the adults in whom you confided to help you, listen to you, and believe you. Similarly, if your teenage child is the victim of a crime, you would expect the same thing. Go into cases with teenage victims with that same perspective.

Conclusion
There is no best way to handle the issues that we face in these cases. Every teen is different, so we deal with them on a case-by-case basis. Thinking outside the box, being creative, and educating others on how to handle or approach teenaged victims can benefit everyone in the process. If not for the opportunity in jury selection to lower the expectations of the jury about the behaviors of teenaged victims and developing a good relationship with those victims before trial, the outcomes of many of my cases would have been different. However, when you can get a jury, parent, teacher, or fellow prosecutor to understand that the issues that come with investigating and prosecuting cases involving teens are surmountable, everyone can work together to make sure that justice is done.

Endnotes

[1] Maturation of the Adolescent Brain, Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 20 3:9 p. 450.

[2] Gavin L., MacKay A.P., Brown K., et al.; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Sexual and reproductive health of persons aged 10–24 years – United States, 2002–2007. MMWR Surveill. Summ. 2009;58(6):1–58.

[3] Maturation of the Adolescent Brain, Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 20 3:9 p. 453.

[4] Id.

[5] If this teen was also a recruiter, it is best to distinguish that behavior from the “not in trouble” language. Do not lie to a teen if he or she is going to get in legal trouble for something he or she did.

[6] It may be wise to write in that the permission is revocable by the parent and in what ways that can be done, because, you know, we’re lawyers, too.