Forensic Interviewer Rebecca Cunio recreates an interview with a victim of child abuse. Photo courtesy of William Betancourt, Tyler, TX.
After talking for two hours about ongoing sexual abuse at the trusted hands of her stepfather, a precious seven-year old girl handed Forensic Interviewer Rebecca Cunio a drawing of a large heart encircled by smaller ones. It read “I love you for what you do.” For Cunio, it was a defining moment in her career.
“To me, it lends credence to the power of these interviews because of what it means to the young victims and their families,” said Cunio, an online Master’s student at Sam Houston State University.
Cunio works in the Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC), a program of the Crisis Center of Anderson and Cherokee counties. This is one of 64 CAC’s in the state of Texas and among 700 others across the country that provide a single place where children alleged to have been abused or neglected are interviewed for criminal cases and civil actions by Child Protective Services. These non-profit agencies provide a number of services to victims and their families including counseling, therapy and family advocacy to name a few. In addition, the Children’s Advocacy Center provides community education year round to educate adults and children on topics such as personal safety, how to recognize signs of abuse, and how to report suspected child abuse or neglect.
The drawing made for Cunio by a child abuse victim.As a forensic interviewer, Cunio conducts forensic interviews with children at the request of law enforcement and/or Child Protective Services. A forensic interview is a semi-structured conversation conducted with children between two and seventeen years of age. The interview is designed to elicit an accurate account of details in a manner which is developmentally appropriate and legally defensible. Last year, Cunio conducted over 200 forensic interviews within her two small rural counties in East Texas, which are centered around Rusk and Palestine and have populations of about 50,000 each.
The forensic interview is video recorded and becomes a critical component of the civil and criminal investigation and may be utilized in any future court proceedings. Investigative agencies involved in the case, including law enforcement, prosecutors and child protective service, monitor the interview via a two way mirror and closed circuit television monitors, alleviating the need for multiple interviews. Referred to as the Multi-Disciplinary Team, investigators are able to meet with the forensic interviewer before the conclusion of the interview to discuss any lingering questions which may need to be presented to the child to help complete their investigations.
Rebecca Cunio works for the Children's Advocacy Center of Anderson and Cherokee counties.Photo courtesy of William Betancourt, Tyler, TX.“I never anticipated this would be my life’s work, but I am very passionate about it,” said Cunio. “I’ve realized how essential Children’s Advocacy Centers can be for everyone involved. For law enforcement and Child Protective Services, we provide essential resources that contribute to a more comprehensive and complete investigation. For children and their families, we provide counseling and follow-up services that emphasize their healing and that promotes justice for victims. Children’s Advocacy Centers are so necessary; I can’t imagine the potential trauma children faced before their existence.”
The first Children’s Advocacy Center originated in Huntsville, Alabama in the 1980s when, the district attorney at the time, Congressman Robert “Bud” Cramer, recognized the disconnect between the child, caregiver and the system in child abuse cases. A variety of different agencies and professionals who responded to child abuse investigations were subjecting children to multiple interviews, in various settings, over extended periods of time and were not collaborating efforts or sharing information.
Today, Children’s Advocacy Centers serve as the hub of child abuse investigations and facilitate a coordinated, multi-disciplinary response among agencies which engages all of the professionals involved and ensures that children do not “fall through the cracks.” Children’s Advocacy Centers may remain involved in the best interests of children and their families through the point of criminal adjudication. Cunio is often called to testify in criminal court as a forensic interviewer about the process of conducting a forensic interview, disclosure patterns, and the role of Children’s Advocacy Centers.
Even in her rural counties, one of the emerging trends that Children’s Advocacy Centers are being faced with is the use of children in human trafficking. While many people think of human trafficking as the international sex trade, hundreds of thousands of children and minors become victims of child sexual exploitation and forced prostitution right here in the United States. Cunio recalls multiple instances of interviewing child victims who were being prostituted by parents and loved ones, exploited in pornographic displays, and held captive in lifestyles of domestic and sexual servitude.
Cunio said she is pursuing a Masters in Criminal Justice Leadership and Management to help her perform her job more effectively and to perhaps pursue a career in federal law enforcement.
In Smith County, a therapy dog assists child abuse victims during the interview and in court.“I do consider myself to be part of the field of criminal justice, and I work closely with and encounter different elements of the system,” said Cunio. “I feel motivated to constantly learn and improve my own skills so that I can provide the best services possible to children and their families. I am fortunate to work in an environment where I have an Executive Director, Donald Hammock, who encourages professional growth and development. The Crisis Center of Anderson and Cherokee Counties is staffed with highly talented and motivated professionals who inspire me to make a positive and meaningful difference in the experiences children and families have with the criminal justice system. “
Before working in Anderson and Cherokee counties, Cunio worked in Smith County near Tyler and was able to play a role in the integration of an animal-assisted therapy component for child victims involved in the criminal justice system. The Therapet Foundation provided certified therapy dogs and their handlers to sit with and comfort children not only during the forensic interview process but in court as well. Since that time, the Smith County District Attorney’s Office became the first DA’s office in Texas to have a certified animal assistance dog on staff and available to victims at all times.
“What a difference these dogs make,” said Cunio. “When you are able to see a child once so scared and intimidated, transformed into pillars of strength, walk into a courtroom with their heads held high- and able to confront their offender all because of the silent comfort and meaningful presence of their new found, furry friend at their side.”