Senate Bill 70: The protection of children’s rights while testifying

(Kate Robinson)
Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 8:11 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 3, 2023 at 9:00 AM CST
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA) - Testifying in court can be difficult. For children, it can be even harder.

Senate Bill 70 would make testifying less traumatic for children. The bill hit the South Dakota Senate floor Wednesday for the second time and passed. The bill is designed to address courtroom modifications when children are required to testify in a court of law against their abusers.

Tifanie Petro is the director of Advocacy and Prevention at the Children’s Home Child Advocacy Center and was the one who drafted the bill, taking guidelines from states that already hold similar laws like Illinois, Colorado, and North Dakota.

“This particular draft of the bill has things like being able to take breaks or have a comfort item. We do have a current statute in our laws that allow for a therapy dog so we included that that would be allowed under this protection as well. We want to ensure that judges and prosecutors have options to create more comfortable situations for child victims and child witnesses when their testimony is needed in court,” explained Petro.

The bill would also hinder the use of harsh language or questions by the defense attorney or the accused while addressing a child.

“That emotional protection is really during trials and court proceedings that are already very stressful for children. In the long run we want to reduce the traumatization that can occur for children that are entering into courtroom proceedings,” Petro concludes.

South Dakota requires children to testify against their abusers, and while the state currently focuses on the rights of the defendants, the bill will not change or violate the rights of defendants. Courtroom modifications only seek to make the process more bearable for child victims.

“I think it’s time in South Dakota to refocus our criminal justice efforts on the victims. The child has the right to have questions asked of them in a developmentally appropriate way. How does that in any way infringe on the defendant’s rights? To use words the child understands,” says Lara Roetzel, attorney consult, and senior advisor for the South Dakota Network Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault.

The bill passed 33-2 with Senators Julie Frye-Mueller from District 30 and Tom Pischke from District 25 voting against it.

It will now be sent to the House Select Committee, where the debate continues.