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Thursday, May 23, 2024

A Time to Be Heard

When Forensic Interviewer Molly Elfreich leaves the interview room after speaking with a child sexual abuse victim at Holly’s House, she often has to return to the same space just minutes later to speak with another. In order to effectively do her job of speaking with children ages 2 to 17, she says she has only a couple minutes to decompress before she must move on to the next.

“I don’t just speak with just a child a week,” says Elfreich, who also serves as the associate director at Holly’s House, a nonresidential child and adult victim advocacy center located at 750 N. Park Drive. “I do multiple interviews a day and they need me to be 100 percent each time. Not to say that there won’t be cases that won’t be forever a piece of my heart and to this day I can think back and I know their faces.”

In over three years at Holly’s House, she has interviewed 1,200 children who have possibly been abused. Nationally, one in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.

Elfreich, an Evansville native, recently attained the Diplomate Child Forensic Interviewer (DCFI) certification, which is the highest level of credentialing from the National Association of Certified Child Forensic Interviewers (NACCFI) Credentialing Board. She is the only person in Indiana and one in 54 in the U.S., to hold this advanced certification.

“It helps a lot in a court setting,” says Elfreich. “I didn’t have to have that certification, I didn’t have to take that test. I didn’t have to put in the man-hours to do it. I chose to do it so that the child is getting the best person across the seat from them so they can get justice. I follow the child-first principle in everything. It always is in the back of my mind that if it helps me in court, it helps them in court. I did it for that and for Holly’s House. Any time that there can be recognition about what we are doing inside our building, there is a potential to bring community awareness.”

The 32-year-old graduated from Indiana University where she majored in criminal justice and psychology. After leaving college, she became a deputy sheriff in Florida, where she worked for nearly two years before returning home to Evansville to work as a confinement officer at the Vanderburgh County Sheriff’s Office. She decided to attend the University of Southern Indiana to obtain her master’s degree in health administration and later discovered she and her husband were expecting a child. She briefly stopped working as she finished her degree and after her daughter’s birth. Soon after, she learned of an opening at Holly’s House for a backup forensic interviewer, which would also help as a service coordinator and receptionist.

“Forensic interviewing is fairly new in the sense of careers,” she says. “It’s only been around about 30 years so it’s ever-evolving. It’s always being tweaked. That’s why I’m constantly going to trainings. I try to go to at least two to three in-depth trainings a year as well as participate in peer reviews.”

Since accepting the position at Holly’s House in early 2012, Elfreich has been promoted to the fulltime forensic interviewer and assistant director.

“There are not a lot of us,” she says of forensic interviewers. “You don’t know if you’re going to be able to do it until your very first kid is sitting across from you and you are doing it. You either have it in you to disassociate and move on or you don’t. I have lots of respect for people who have tried this and said they can’t do it and moved on. It is a complete disservice if you can’t emotionally handle it. As of right now I do a very good job of turning it off because I want to be good for every kid that comes in.”

When a child enters the interviewing room with Elfreich, she instructs him or her to sit in a specific chair and she sits in a chair across from them. She does this because of the video cameras built into the wall, which allow law enforcement in the space next door to watch the entire interview. Elfreich, who can’t speak to a child unless a report has been filed through the Department of Child Services and/or law enforcement, wears an earpiece allowing her to never leave the room so those viewing can speak to her.

“I don’t want them to get some false idea that this is some secret between me and them,” she explains. “I make them aware that those people are watching because this is for a purpose. There is a lot of shame and guilt. Someone has groomed them or lured them into this situation and they have made the child think they are an active participant when they are not.”

Elfreich works to learn where the child is developmentally through a narrative practice, which is non-traumatic. If a child loves gymnastics, she will ask him or her to describe a competition episodically using as much detail as possible.

“I am figuring out developmentally where they are at and what kind of details they can give me,” she says. “When we get to the abuse, I’m not confusing them when I ask them to tell me all about it.”

The majority of her questions are open-ended and she never inserts responses for the child. She keeps an easel in the interview room allowing children to use drawings to recall situations or anatomical illustrations to help clarify body parts. Elfreich never shows emotion when the child is disclosing the abuse, and she also never touches the child.

“I tell them, ‘Whatever words you use, whatever language, whatever you say to me, you’ll never be in trouble with me,’” she says. “When we talk about body parts, once you get past that first time, and they hear me say it and I say it with no affect, no shock, they are like, ‘OK, she can hear this and listen.’”

Reliving the situation can be difficult and Elfreich says she always wants to make sure the child is in a state where they want to talk about it.

“They had no choice about what happened to them but they are absolutely going to have a choice in who they talk to and who they tell,” she says. “I always want that to be portrayed that the child had a choice. If they can’t do this part with me, then they are going to have a really hard time going through the criminal justice process.”

Elfreich says almost all disclosures are delayed, which can mean a child confesses six months to years after the abuse occurred. She says one example of how family members learn of the mistreatment is through accidental disclosure where the child told a friend who later told their mother and the parent reports it.

“The general public has this ‘Law & Order: SVU,’ ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ effect where there is physical evidence and there is a black light used,” she says. “We don’t have evidence. There is no longer an injury if there ever was one.

“We have to convince a jury that this child’s statement is enough for this conviction. Part of my job on the stand is education on why kids have delayed disclosure, why kids sometime disclose and recant their statement.”

She explains that disclosures often are delayed because “stranger danger isn’t what children should be afraid of.”

“Out of 1,200 interviews, there were probably 15 to 20 that were strangers,” says Elfreich. “They are family members, people they knew, people they loved. You’re asking kids to send dads, grandpas to jail. They love these people even though they molested them. You are asking a lot emotionally of these kids to take on.”

Because of the personal relationships involved, Holly’s House offers a “Think First & Stay Safe” school program, which provides personal safety and child abuse prevention education at no charge to elementary schools in Gibson, Pike, Posey, Vanderburgh, and Warrick counties. Nineteen thousand area children have received the instruction created by Child Lures Prevention.

For more information about Holly’s House, call 812-437-7233 or visit hollyshouse.org.

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