Tender Years Bill Seeks Justice for Young Victims

June 30, 2021

As the Pennsylvania legislature finished the budget, it also passed HB 156, legislation which will help younger teenagers testify against their accusers, especially in cases of sexual and other forms of violence, including human trafficking.

This legislation recognizes the trauma that young victims of crime often suffer and how that trauma makes testimony difficult.

stop violence against child and women's, child violence and abusKnown as the Tender Years exception to the rule against hearsay, the bill expands the ability to introduce certain reliable out-of-court statements to those who are up to 16 years of age. The purpose is to help vulnerable victims by allowing the court to admit into evidence testimony that otherwise might not be shared when a young victim is too traumatized to fully testify.

These out-of-court statements, or hearsay, are generally not permitted to be introduced into evidence at trial. There are, however, a number of exceptions to this rule, typically when the statements are made under  reliable circumstances. One such exception is the “tender years exception,” which provides that a hearsay statement of a child sexual abuse victim or victim of another violent crime is admissible provided the evidence is relevant and the time, content and circumstances of the statement provide sufficient indicia of reliability, and the young victim is not able or available to testify.

The tender years exception recognizes that some younger victims of sexual assaults and other violent crimes may have a difficult time testifying, that it is completely understandable that a young victim would have difficulty in court, and that the jury can rely on out-of-court statements that the court explicitly finds to be reliable. As those who work with young teenage victims know, these victims are often more self-conscious and ashamed of having been victimized, so much so that they sometimes have more difficulty with testifying and feel more shame than younger children who do not necessarily understand all the circumstances surrounding the crimes committed against them.

HB 156 continues to protect the rights of defendants. It’s important to note that the court must first find evidence to be reliable. Additionally, most victims whose statements would be admitted will still be subject to cross-examination because in most cases victims are on the witness stand subject to cross-examination when their prior out-of-court statements are introduced into evidence.  And, under US Supreme Court caselaw, when a victim cannot appear in person, the ability to admit hearsay evidence is extremely limited, especially when the statement was made to law enforcement.

This bill was the result of tremendous bi-partisan work. We are grateful to prime sponsor Representative Clint Owlett for his leadership and support and to the incredible bipartisan support this legislation received in the House and Senate. We also appreciate the partnership with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the  Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation in advocating for this bill.

The true beneficiaries are those younger victims who deserve justice.

Greg RoweGreg Rowe is the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. He can be reached at growe@pdaa.org