Detectives, counselors take team approach in child abuse cases

Monday, September 20, 2004

By Linda Redeffer ~ Southeast Missourian

Law enforcement officers, counselors and members of the court system are finding that a team effort works best when it comes to helping victims of child abuse.

A team effort is being promoted on a statewide and national level, and it already is building in Cape Girardeau County and some surrounding counties.

Recently two police detectives, one each from Jackson and Cape Girardeau, and the director of the Network Against Sexual Violence attended a conference in New Orleans to take some specialized training for handling child abuse cases.

"One of the things they kept repeating is that if your community is not working in a team you are behind the times," said NASV executive director Tammy Gwaltney.

NASV has served 10 Southeast Missouri counties since 1998 in the area of abuse, both physical and sexual, adults as well as children, and has a team established in all 10 counties. So far this year, Gwaltney said, NASV has seen 63 abuse cases in Cape Girardeau County. Of the 292 cases in all 10 counties, only 13 were adult abuse cases.

The protocols for handling child abuse cases use a child-centered method of investigation. Rather than make a child repeat his story to each agency involved in his case, he only has to say it once. The agencies relay the child's story to each other.

"We get everybody on the same page from the beginning to the end," said detective Sgt. Scott Eakers of the Jackson Police Department. "It's a new process. We're trying to get everybody on board across the country. It's only going to help our system."

The local team -- which also includes medical professionals and juvenile officers -- meets once a month to discuss ongoing cases. Team members share ideas for helping children, they learn which perpetrators to watch for as they move among counties and states. Gwaltney said that child abusers often move frequently to keep from being discovered. She mentioned one 11-year-old child who had lived in eight different states.

Often a counselor will learn something a police officer needs to know but can't find out.

In the case of a child suspected of being abused at home by a stepparent or a parent's live-in companion, the child will often tell a counselor or police officer that nothing is wrong at home. Gwaltney said a child may cover up his own abuse thinking that if the adult abuses him, then the abuser will leave the younger brothers and sisters alone.

But a nurse who has examined the child is able to tell the rest of the team that the physical facts show someone is abusing him. If that child acts out and gets in trouble and is sent to juvenile detention, perhaps then he will admit to the abuse, but not for his own sake.

"Now there are siblings at home and he is not there to protect them," Gwaltney said.

And the juvenile officer who is part of the team can share that information and others in the team can do their part to arrest the perpetrator.

"It's a good feeling when you can get an abuse suspect locked up," said detective Darren Estes with the Cape Girardeau Police Department.

Instances of child abuse are on the rise, partly because more people are reporting it instead of keeping it a family secret, Eakers said. Through education, more people who are considered to be mandated reporters -- teachers, nurses and others who are in contact with children -- are learning more about when to report suspected instances of child abuse.

Estes said it's on the rise also because more people are abusing children. Gwaltney agrees.

"We see homes where many, many people are coming into the home," she said. "The kids don't know who some of those people are. Mom has a home here; Dad has a home there. All these people are coming in and have access to these children. Kids are really vulnerable."

In other instances, she said, many perpetrators abuse children because they don't understand how wrong it is; they were abused themselves and it's all they know.

"In a case I worked the other day," Estes said, "there were three kids, and some of the behaviors they learned are what they saw their grandfather doing to their mother. The whole family was 'perping' on each other."

Training sessions like the one they attended in New Orleans bring the team into contact with other professionals who have learned to tackle similar problems.

They learned the value of keeping up with the sexual offender registry list. It is no coincidence, the detectives say, that registered sexual offenders often live near schools. It also is no coincidence that when a woman learns that her new live-in boyfriend is a registered sex offender, her children start displaying signs of abuse.

The group also picked up information on how some predators find children over the Internet. Gwaltney said it may not be because children are looking for a companion in a chat room. She recounted an instance where a 10-year-old girl was trying to sell some Beanie Babies through a Web site. A stalker reading that Web site saw her ad, determined her age and by looking into public records easily available on the Internet was able to find out where she lived, where she went to school, how many were in her family and when she might be home alone.

Since the team effort has been in place, Estes said, he has seen a higher rate of plea bargains and convictions.

"We're all coming from the same place now," he said.

"By working as a team," Eakers said, "we get what we want, the medical people get what they want and the juvenile people get what they want, all in one case."

Gwaltney said she has plans to hold local seminars and bring in speakers to educate more professionals who work with children and abuse.

335-6611, extension 160

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