Monday, February 12, 2007

child abuse - expungement - hearsay - finding that child is "unavailable"

C.E. v. Dept. of Public Welfare - Commonwealth Court - February 12, 2007

Hearsay statements of child victim were not admissible, absent findings by the ALJ that the hearsay satisfied the requirements of the statute, 42 Pa. C.S. 5986. See, A.Y. v. DPW, 641 A.2d 1148, 1153 (Pa. 1994) and In the Interest of Tina K., 568 A.2d 210 (Pa. Super. 1989).

In particular, the ALJ never made a finding that the child was "unavailable" to testify, that is, "whether testifying would cause her emotional distress to the extent that her ability to communicate would be substantially impaired." The lack of such a finding is not a "mere failure by the ALJ to use the 'magic words' in 42 Pa. C.S. 5986. It is a clear requirement of the statute. Moreover, the evidence in this case included statements by the child that she was not afraid of the Petitioner, that she felt good and was not afraid to be at the hearing.

Although the Commonwealth Court did not mention it, the Superior Court reached a similar result in construing a related statute, 42 Pa. C.S. 5986.1, in Cmwlth. v. Kriner, January 2, 2007 - , where it held that the hearsay statement of a child victim/witness under 12 years of age is admissible under 42 Pa. C.S. 5985.1 to prove certain criminal offenses if, inter alia, the child is "'unavailable" as a witness. The statute defines "unavailable" as "serious emotional distress that would substantially impair the child's ability to communicate." This definition is exclusive. There is "no other manner, method, procedure or definition of what constitutes unavailability." Thus, the death of a child witness does not come within this statutory definition of unavailability.

There was also an issue of witness competency. Although it was not considered in deciding the case, the court set out (in n. 8) the criteria for deciding whether a child in a competent witness, citing Commonwealth v. McMaster, 666 A.2d 724, 727 (Pa. Super. 1995).