In April 2017 19-year-old Tyler Wade Buskirk of Martinsville was charged with one count of child molest involving an 8-year-old female in Johnson County.
Court records indicate the victim’s grandmother contacted the Franklin Police Department after witnessing behavior that made her suspicious. Soon after the report to police, the victim was seen at the Pediatric Center of Hope at Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis where she participated in a forensic sexual assault examination in an attempt to gather evidence of the alleged abuse. Later, the detectives began interviewing Buskirk and used statements made during the interview to determine which evidence could be collected and sent to the Indiana State Lab for DNA analysis along with results from the forensic medical exam.
Within 48 hours of the initial disclosure the victim was forensically interviewed at the Johnson County Child Advocacy Center. She told Detective Matt Harris of the Franklin Police Department that Buskirk undressed her and made her perform sexual acts. “At the time of disclosure, the victim told the detective that the abuse occurred several times over a 3-4 week period,” said Lisa Vanek, Victim Advocate for the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office.
“Det. Harris did a fabulous job,” said Johnson County Deputy Prosecutor Ryan Bland. Bland credits Gundersen ChildFirst forensic interviewer training, championed by CHILDFIRST Indiana and the Indiana Chapter, for the excellent interview work. “We know there’s no perfect interview, but at least in this case, Detective Harris’ interview was pretty close to perfect. He carefully followed the ChildFirst model and let the victim tell him what happened to her using her own words,” said Vanek.
Buskirk’s initial hearing occurred in June 2017 and the case went to trial in Johnson Circuit Court on November 14, 2017. As a result of excellent investigative work by Detective Harris at the initial disclosure, the effort of the Johnson County Child Advocacy Center, and the dedicated staff at the Johnson County Prosecutor’s Office, Buskirk was found guilty of one count of child molest.
During the trial, defense attorneys maintained the victim was being coached by family members, the detectives, and the Prosecutor’s Office by way of getting access to their facility dog in exchange for favorable statements. “We objected to that line of questioning,” said Bland. “We asked the judge rule on the credibility of her testimony – which took several hours on the stand – by using the recorded forensic interview from the Johnson County Child Advocacy Center,” he added. Prosecutors believed the interview was the best evidence of what she initially told Detective Harris within 48 hours of disclosing the abuse.
“The judge listened to our argument and the defense. It was incredibly helpful to have a transcript of the forensic interview,” said Bland. Because Prosecutors had a transcript available, they were able to quickly provide the Court with a copy. Defense attorneys objected to an alluding five-minute statement during the interview, which the Judge indicated should be redacted in order to be admitted.
“I didn’t believe we had the elements to use Indiana’s Protected Person’s statute [at the start of this trial]”, said Bland. “To use the Protected Persons statute, we have to bring a child in to court early,” said Bland. Often the defendant will take a plea deal, making the secondary trauma of the child’s retelling of events moot. As Bland describes, “This is a tricky balance to figure out what’s best for the victim, the case, and the community.” Here, Johnson County Prosecutors used the forensic interview as additional evidence to support testimony and prevent it from being discredited.
Vanek, the Victim Advocate, says the child is doing “as best she can be.” “She is really just glad it is over. The weeks leading up to the trial were exhausting for her. She’s very shy, and really did not want to talk about the details of her abuse. We believed she could testify, but we were never really sure how much detail she would go into once she took the stand. The night before she was to testify it was clear she did not want to talk about it. We simply reminded her to tell the truth about what happened to her. In the end, she spent 3-4 hours on the stand and she was able to tell the court what happened to her. We are super proud of her.” said Vanek.
Buskirk will be sentenced on December 18, 2017.
Earlier this year a Boone County court admitted forensic interview footage instead of testimony in a child abuse case. The Indiana Court of Appeals later upheld the use of that interview. Johnson County is the second county in Indiana to have a forensic interview admitted as evidence at trial.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Court as Johnson Superior Court. This story has been updated to reflect the Court as Johnson Circuit Court.