Police Adapt to Question Abused Children : Interrogation in a Nursery Setting

Times Staff Writer

Police interrogation rooms are not supposed to look cheery. They usually consist of a metal desk, a couple of straight-back chairs and four gray walls. The atmosphere is usually one of unadorned doom.

At the Los Angeles Police Department's northeast division, seven of the interrogation rooms fit that mold. The eighth, however, looks more like a nursery school.

The room is lined with Care Bears wallpaper and is furnished with such items as bean-bag chairs, toy trucks, books about Dumbo and Peter Pan and framed photographs of playful animals.

The anatomically correct dolls perched on a shelf provide the only clue as to the room's purpose: to apply a relatively new police approach to the delicate job of questioning children who have been sexually abused.

The so-called Child's Interviewing Room, which officers finished decorating last week, is the first within the LAPD's 18 divisions to be set aside solely for cases involving sexual molestation of children, police said.

The strategy is to create an atmosphere that will put children at ease so that they are more willing to tell police investigators what has happened to them.

"Our regular interrogation rooms can be fairly intimidating places to small kids and certainly not very conducive to getting solid testimony," Capt. Bob Taylor said. "What we've tried to do is make one of our rooms look like a kid's room at home, to create familiar surroundings."

Redecorating the room was the idea of Detective Sam Jacobellis, who handles child abuse cases out of the northeast division, in Los Angeles' Atwater neighborhood on San Fernando Road.

"I just found that interviews with kids in our regular rooms weren't working well because the kids weren't opening up," Jacobellis said. "And it was even worse when we would have to talk to them at their own home, with one of the suspects possibly being in the house."

Because there were no police funds to renovate one of the interrogation rooms, Jacobellis and other investigators asked for help from local businesses and organizations, which responded by donating money and materials.

"We didn't think there would be this much support, but the community was just great," Taylor said. "We collected about $600 worth of things before we even knew it, and it eventually reached the point of our having to turn down money."

One of the groups that helped was the Friends of the Atwater Library, which gave the police dozens of children's books to fill the shelves in the interviewing room.

"Everyone is concerned about child abuse, and we'll support any efforts the police think might work," said group spokesman Bill Hart. "The police have treated us very well, and when they asked for books, there was really no question about whether or not we'd help out."

Idea Used in Santa Monica

The idea of redecorating interview rooms to create an environment to calm small children who have been sexually abused is not new and has been used by child psychologists for years. However, until now the only law enforcement agency in Southern California to use the strategy has been the Santa Monica Police Department, said Detective Rich Parker, who is in charge of the LAPD's child abuse unit at downtown police headquarters.

Parker added that he would like to see other LAPD divisions follow the example set by the northeast division and Santa Monica, although he said space limitations often prohibit it.

"We're trying to get funds for one here in Parker Center, but it hasn't come together yet," Parker said.

Santa Monica police juvenile investigator Tom Tanner said the department redecorated one of its offices three years ago on the advice of one of its child psychologists.

"Of course, it's hard to judge how effective the room has been in making kids reveal things, but we feel it's definitely helped," Tanner said. "I think the toys and cartoon books sort of throw the kids off guard and kind of return them to their element. It's better than having them sit in a sterile room on a chair that doesn't even allow them to put their feet on the floor and have to talk across a table to a cop."

Importance of Environment

Kee MacFarland, director of the child abuse section of Children's Institute International, praised police for renovating rooms for interviewing possible sexual molestation victims, commenting that a child's surroundings during an interview are vital in obtaining factual statements.

"Environment absolutely affects the interview," said MacFarland, who has interviewed most of the alleged victims in the McMartin Preschool investigation. "The subject matter of sex abuse is so scary that you have to do everything you can to let the kids get over their fears. The police who take steps to increase the comfort level in children are the ones that will make progress."

MacFarland warned, however, that an interview room should not have an overload of distractions, such as too many toys, books and pictures. She also advised that, if possible, a child psychologist should be present during the interview.

New Station Has Space

Northeast division officials said the renovation of the interrogation room was done, not because their area has a particularly high number of reported child abuse cases, but because they have plenty of room at their station. The station was moved last year from Highland Park to a location with more than three times the office space.

"The move definitely works in our favor," Capt. Taylor said. "Other divisions probably couldn't do this because of space limitations, but we'll make the room available to other officers if they think it will help."

Detective Jacobellis said the room has already been used to interview about five children and that the sessions "went smoothly."

"We sit right down in the bean-bag chairs, just like they do," he said. "I think the whole atmosphere makes it easier for us to talk to them and them to us."

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