Alumnus Ashley Wiggins recently returned to a Child Abuse and Neglect class to discuss her work as a forensic interviewer.
Last year, Wiggins took two victims services classes – Family Violence and Child Abuse and Neglect – to complete her criminal justice degree. One of the classes required 10 hours of community service, which she performed as a volunteer with the Polk County District Attorney’s Office.
"The child abuse class caught me, and I knew I had to be doing something to stop it," Wiggins said.
During her month long internship, Wiggins worked with the crime victim coordinator in the county to prepare a spring race to benefit victim services in the county. She also watched court proceedings and help prepared protective orders in cases of domestic violence.
When she graduated in May 2010, Wiggins continued to volunteer in the office for three months. Childrenz Haven, the state’s newest Child Advocacy Center in Polk County, began offering direct services in July 2010 and offered her a job as a forensic interviewer. She joined fellow SHSU alumni, Nikki Foster, who serves as Executive Director at the center.
Childrenz Haven is a nonprofit organization that advocates for child victims of physical or sexual abuse in Polk County Texas. The center also assists children who witness crime or who are endangered by the use of drugs in the home. In addition to providing a one-stop interviewing process for criminal proceedings, it refers children and parents to counseling services and educates the public on ways to identify child abuse.
"It deals with any type of crimes against children," Wiggins said.
As a forensic interviewer, Wiggins is trained to speak to children in a non-threatening, non- leading way to gather information needed to prosecute a case. The interview is designed to reduce trauma suffered by young victims or witnesses to crime by reducing the number of times they have to tell their story.
"It’s tough at times because of the things you hear children say that they should never have to say," Wiggins said.
While Childrenz Haven just opened on July 1, 2010, it already received its first victory with a child molester who was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
"It makes having to hear that stuff well worth it," Wiggins said. "We finally got to see the outcome."
To become a forensic interviewer, Wiggins has to go through five separate training sessions, each one week long. She has already completed two to qualify as a forensic interviewer and has three more classes to take this year. The classes teach the process of forensic interviews and how to testify in court.
Childrenz Haven serves children from two to 17 years old. Interviews range from about 30 minutes to 2-1/2 hours, depending on the age of the child and the extent of the crime. The forensic interview includes five key steps to qualify in court.
Rapport building is where the interviewer and child get comfortable with each other by discussing everyday events, such as school, pets, or coloring. The interviewer progresses into a developmental assessment, which measures a child’s understanding of key concepts, such as colors and directions, such as over/under/on the side, all aspects which are important in relaying details of the crime.
The third step establishes a child’s understanding of what is the truth or a lie, which includes short, easy everyday scenarios. The interviewer asks the child to commit to telling the truth.
During main interview, the child is asked open-ended questions to allow him or her to divulge details of the crime. In fact, interviewers are given little, if any, information about the offense so they will not influence the conversation. The final step is to illicit as many details as possible about the crime.
Wiggins said that the job has opened her eyes to crimes against children, which occur in all races, religions and socio-economic classes. She urged fellow students interested in the field to do an internship to see if they are cut out for this line of work from the beginning.
"It made me realize whether I could be in this job every day," Wiggins said of her internship.
William Lee Hon, the Polk County District Attorney and another SHSU graduate, said Wiggins is “very professional.”
"It is fun to see her do what she does," Hon said. "There is nothing more invaluable than a forensic interviewer who is non-threatening. They do a better job than law enforcement or CPS in talking to children."