Gov. Jerry Brown on Monday signed into law a measure placing limits on how alleged child sexual assault victims may be interviewed during civil legal proceedings.
State Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) said he authored the bill after meeting with parents who decided not to file suit because they were afraid defense lawyers would traumatize their children. He also met with parents who felt defense attorneys' experts had manipulated their children.
"Manipulation is currently allowed under the existing anything-goes process … for litigation on child abuse cases," Beall said in an interview. "This bill would start imposing some standards or rules of behavior when it comes to cases that involve interviewing children."
Defense lawyers previously were permitted to conduct a seven-hour-long deposition, as well as have doctors or psychologists evaluate the children with few limits and no supervision.
The new law — which passed the state Senate and the Assembly with no opposition — allows only doctors or clinical psychologists with expertise in child abuse to evaluate anyone under 15 years old, for up to three hours.
Micha Liberty, an Oakland-based attorney, said she had seen "horrific abuses of the process that caused sustained trauma" to child witnesses.
She described the case of one 6-year-old boy who had allegedly been sexually abused. During the deposition, the defense attorney's medical expert denied the youngster a bathroom break. The boy wet his pants and started crying, and it became harder for him to answer questions.
Liberty said that as she and the boy's mother sat in the waiting room, they heard the expert yelling that good boys don't cry.
Defense attorney Decio Rangel said he thought the three-hour limit was a good idea. "It protects a young victim from unscrupulous questioning," said Rangel, who previously worked as a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County with a specialty in sexual assault.
But, Rangel said, the required expertise in child abuse might be overkill. "Anybody with any kind of experience can ask those kinds of questions of a minor," he said before adding: "I can see why they put that in there."