COLUMBIA CITY — Whitley County’s criminal justice system has zero tolerance for crimes against children — especially child molestation.

In recent years, the county saw an uptick in child molesting cases in its courts. Many of those cases have ended in jury trials with guilty convictions, or the person admits to the crimes before going to trial.

Though officials are pleased with the courtroom verdicts — they know that jail time is not equal to the consequences the vicitims face.

At a recent sentencing for a man who was convicted of three counts of child molesting in Churubusco, Prosecutor D.J. Sigler posed a moving argument:

“You can’t calculate the damage to these children,” Sigler argued to the judge. “He will probably walk the streets again, but they will have to live with his conduct for the rest of their lives. This person has destroyed their ability to trust.”

The man in the case was sentenced to 15 years, but the three children he abused will continue to carry the burden of his crimes — the way it is with many similar cases, Sigler said.

“Child molesting victims are scarred for the rest of their lives,” Sigler said. “The crime outlives the moment of its commission. In many of these cases, the children are victimized daily for long periods of time. We can put the offender away in jail for a few years, but what happens to the child impacts their lives going forward.”

Jeffrey Bedree, director of the Whitley County office of the Indiana Department of Child Services, believes more people are reporting crimes now, due increase in media coverage of sexual abuse cases.

“This coverage has really pushed the local community stakeholders to increase the knowledge of sexual abuse and how to better identify the signs and symptoms of such abuse in children,” Bedree said.

Whitley County’s child molesting statistics are in line with the national average, but there has been an increase of 10-20 percent more child abuse cases overall in Whitley County. Sigler attributes the increase in cases to the additional Child Services case workers the state has added to Whitley County in the past few years.

“The additional case workers are helping to keep kids safe across the board, not just child molesting,” Sigler said.

 

Investigation techniques

The county has also improved its investigation techniques.

Previously, a child would be brought into the police station to be interviewed by an older, male law enforcement officer. Now, thanks to a donation by Parkview, there’s a special interview room for children.

The interview center has a more welcoming, relaxed atmosphere, “where children can be comfortable,” Sigler said.

He said the new center has been very successful in interviewing children, which is often intimidating for the victim.

A forensic interviewer can sit down with the child, while the rest of the investigation team, including the prosecutor, investigating agency and a member from Child Services, can watch the interview develop and speak with the interviewer via a microphone.

“It’s been a wonderful thing for the community,” Sigler said.

The prosecution is highly specialized, and Whitley County has seen successful prosecutions with its previous prosecutors John Whiteleather and Matt Rentschler, Sigler said. Sigler, who took the reins as prosecutor in January, has also seen success, with a guilty conviction in a trial and several guilty pleas.

“They are incredibly difficult cases,” Sigler said. “There’s a lot of different pieces.”

Because children often don’t report the crime until long after it happens, physical evidence is often non-existent.

“There’s a 24-48 hour window the physical evidence can be collected,” Sigler said. “But most kids internalize what happened to them, and don’t report it until months or years later.”

In many cases, a guilty conviction hinges on a good forensic interview — that’s why Sigler is working to build a team of investigators who are specially trained.

“Our sheriff’s department and city police department have outstanding investigators,” Sigler said. “For a community of this size to have resources like that, is excellent.”

It can be difficult to get children to speak about what happened without coaching or leading them into their story.

“They have to feel free to tell the story in their own words,” Sigler said. “Sometimes that’s challenging. They don’t want to remember the details. They want to forget. They want to shove it down in the dark and forget. We have to make them relive it. It’s not a fun process to put a child through.”

Many people view children as younger versions of adults, but children have different ways of remembering things and disclosing information, Sigler said.

“Children don’t remember exact dates of when things happened,” Sigler said. “Many adults don’t even remember dates. If I asked you where you were on a certain day in 1999, would you remember? But we demand perfection in their testimony.”

Instead, interviewers ask the child about certain events that happened around the time of the incident, such as birthdays, holidays, seasons, that can help corroborate a story.

Sigler often calls expert witnesses to the stand to explain to jurors how the process of disclosure works in children.

“Jury trials can be very difficult, especially when everything is based on the recollection of the child,” Sigler said. “They’re crimes in secret. It’s not arson or robbery or burglary — we usually don’t have eyewitnesses. It’s a great tragedy.”

 

Protecting your child

The best way to protect your child, is to know your child, Sigler says.

“Be a good parent — be involved,” Sigler said. “You have to be engaged with them. In this culture it’s hard to do sometimes.”

If a child experiences something disturbing, having a good relationship with them will allow them to feel comfortable enough to tell you right away, rather than allowing the abuse to continue.

“We see a lot of disclosures in schools and to grandparents,” Sigler said. “Sometimes, a child will tell their classmate, who, to their credit, will tell an adult.”

It’s important to know who your child is spending time with.

“We’ve helped teach kids that it’s OK to tell,” Sigler said. “We’re doing a better job of communicating that — through school systems, law enforcement outreach and the aggressive prosecution and investigation of these cases.”

Nationally, about 70 percent of child molesting incidents are caused by someone the child knows — often a family member or family friend. Oftentimes, that’s the reason the incidents are reported days, weeks, months and even years later — or not at all.

“Parents have been focused on teaching their children to stay away from strangers, but in these cases, it more likely is from mom’s new boyfriend or a relative. Those people are capable of committing the crime for months or even years.”

Sigler mentioned the crimes in Delphi that left two young girls dead — likely attacked by a stranger.

“The horrible thing that happened in Delphi — that’s highly unusual,” Sigler said. “It’s much more likely to be mom’s new boyfriend that she brought home, than some stranger pulling up next to them in a car with candy. In cases where it’s a stranger, it would frighten the child and the would run away. But how do you run away from mom’s boyfriend?”

The public needs to be aware of that challenge — kids don’t always have someone to tell — and that’s why the abuse often takes place multiple times, he said.

“Many times, people ask, ‘why didn’t they tell somebody? Why didn’t they speak up? Why didn’t they scream out?,” Sigler said. “But if you’re a helpless kid and it’s someone your parents have put in your life, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to say anything.”

Parents who are engaged in their child’s lives are more likely to recognize a problem — but Bedree said perpetrators are very calculated.

“They not only try to groom the child, but also groom adults as well,” Bedree said. “One warning sign for the perpetrator might be that he or she is becoming overly interested in a child. If there is more than one child in the home, the perpetrator might show particular attention to only one of the children. They may also buy them random gifts or offer to babysit the child.

“The sole intent of the perpetrator is to build trust so they can take advantage of that trust.”

 

Recognizing the signs

Warning signs in the child may be even more difficult to detect.

Warning signs differ depending on the age of the child, as well as their cognitive level, Bedree said.

“One of the major warning signs to look for in a victim is if they have a sudden change in their behavior,” Bedree said. “If a child who is typically very outgoing and personable, suddenly becomes disinterested in friends and family, that could be a warning sign that the child has experienced some sort of trauma.”

A website called, “stopitnow.org” offers more warning signs for child molesting:

• A child may start acting like a younger child again, such as bed-wetting and thumb-sucking.

• They may have new works for private body parts.

• The child could engage other children in sexual activities.

• Mood swings, such as rage, fear, insecurity or withdrawal.

• The child could seem distracted or distant at odd times.

• The victim may leave “clues” that seem likely to provoke a discussion about sexual issues.

• They exhibit adult-like sexual knowledge or behaviors.

Additionally, adolescents sexual abuse victims may suffer from depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders or have a fear of intimacy.

It is rare for a child to falsely accuse someone of child molesting, which is defined as a sexual act to a child under 14 years of age, Bedree said.

Though it’s not uncommon for parents to initially be in denial or disbelief when their child discloses what happened, it’s important, and required, to report suspicions to police.

Under Indiana law, any individual who suspects a child is a victim of abuse or neglect has a duty to report it the Child Services’ hotline at (800) 800-5556, or their local law enforcement agency.

The identity of those reporting the crime is protected.

After the report is taken, the investigative team will assemble, which includes the prosecutor, law enforcement and Child Services. Additionally, the prosecutor’s victim’s advocate is available to assist.

 

After effects

Research has shown people who were victims of sexual abuse have a higher percentage of being diagnosed with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders.

“They often experience guilty, shame and self-blame,” Bedree said. “Many different factors can impact the long term effects of sexual abuse. One of the major factors is the severity of the abuse, and how the child was supported once they disclosed what happened.”

Even if Sigler gets a hefty sentence, it’s still not enough.

“We try to aggressively prosecute them (perpetrators) and take care of these kids as well as we know how,” Sigler said.

“But there’s never a good outcome in a child molesting case. You can convict them, get a big sentence, and that child is still going to be scarred for the rest of their life.”

Sigler keeps in touch with many of the victims, and takes pride when they go on to lead successful lives — but not all do.

“I’ve seen some success stories, but there are far more kids who have internalized the abuse and not dealt with it — leading to difficult lives,” Sigler said.

“Those kids suffer from the crime until the day they die.”