Many adults who were abused or molested as kids have never told anyone.
That’s why Jackson County sheriff’s Detective Steve Bohn is so inspired by the kids he meets while working on child victim cases.
“I’m mostly amazed by the fact that they’re able to open up and talk about what happened to them,” he says.
“I’m inspired by the fact that they have the courage. I wish I had that much courage.”
He’s especially impressed by kids who’ve experienced horrific abuse, but then go on to accomplish great things, he says.
“They didn’t let it affect their lives and they moved on. There’s always something that you always take away from a kid,” he says.
The perpetrator is usually someone they know, says Detective Jason Penn, who also works at the sheriff’s office.
It could be a parent, an uncle or a cousin, he says.
If the perpetrator is a parent, that person could be financially supporting the family, Penn says.
Disclosures of abuse often pit family member against family member, triggering a civil war among relatives, he says.
“And even though everything is crumbling around them, these kids maintain their statement. They stay the course with me. They fight through all this adversity,” Penn says.
Preparing children for the witness stand
When detectives get a report about suspected physical or sexual abuse, they talk to the child. But they have to be careful how they handle the interview to ensure the child isn’t asked leading questions.
In the 1980s and 1990s, public hysteria erupted over reports of sexual abuse and Satanic rituals at daycare centers. Some daycare workers were falsely accused of bizarre and horrible crimes. Researchers found out it’s pretty easy to lead children into fabricating a story, as they want to please the investigator and will try to give the “right” answer to leading questions, even if the answer isn’t true. And if they don’t know the answer to a question, they’ll make a guess as they’re taught to in school.
Medford police Detective Diane Sandler says a lot has changed since then.
Investigators get extensive training on how to conduct a proper forensic interview with a child.
“It’s talking to kids in a way that’s legally defensible at trial or in court. It’s asking non-leading questions,” Sandler says.
Sandler asks a child to tell her everything that happened, from the beginning to the end. If kids say someone touched them on a private part of their body, she doesn’t jump in to ask who did it or when it happened.
“You allow the child to provide the details to you rather than you providing details to the child. So interviewing kids has changed dramatically in the last 15 years,” she says.
Prosecutors say they also have to be careful not to lead a child into a false story when they prepare children to take the witness stand.
“Most importantly what we tell them is, ‘You just tell the truth. That’s your job up there,’” says Terry Smith-Norton, senior deputy district attorney at the Jackson County DA’s Office.
She’s one of two prosecutors who work on child victim cases full-time.
Smith-Norton tries to help kids get ready to testify by taking them into a courtroom. She lets them sit in the witness seat. She explains the job of the jury, and where the judge and defendant will sit.
“This is where the person who abused you is going to sit,” she tells them. “But that person’s not going to be able to say anything to you, to hurt you in any way.”
“We try to reassure them,” Smith-Norton says. “I think people in general are a lot less fearful if they have some idea of the setting and what’s going to happen. But I don’t know that there’s any way to fully prepare them for what that’s like. And I’ve had children that just amazed me up there — sometimes children that I thought were going to shut down. And I’ve had kids that did great preparing and they get in that seat and shut down. It’s very hard to know how they’re going to do, ultimately.”
A lot of times, detectives and prosecutors have bonded with a child during the investigation and build-up to a trial.
Detectives who are called to the witness stand say watching a child up there is scarier than when they have to testify themselves.
Bohn says it’s emotionally draining to watch kids have to face the person who hurt them and get quizzed by defense attorneys.
“I feel stressed out for them knowing that they’re up there having to answer these questions,” he says. “And I’ve seen kids do really well, like, ‘Man, I could never testify that well. I wish I had the strength to do what the kids do.’”
Bohn says it’s especially hard to watch children have to testify about sexual abuse.
“Well, I’ll be honest with you. I’m an adult male and I have a relationship with my wife. And I really don’t want to go around everywhere talking about what I do with my wife — and let alone now we have a child who has to get on the stand and share that with everybody? I think that’s a very difficult situation. And the majority of kids that I’ve seen go through that have done phenomenal,” he says.
Penn says it’s especially rewarding to connect children with community services such as counseling that can help them.
Police officers — who are usually fathers and mothers themselves — often don’t want anything to do with the child victim caseload, he says.
It’s just too painful to imagine their own kids being abused.
“But once I think they understood what it really meant to help somebody out of that situation, I think they would change their mind,” Penn says.
Protectors bond with the child victims
For detectives and prosecutors, sometimes the hardest part comes after a case is finished. They’ve spent months and sometimes years with these kids as cases creep through the court system.
Detective Bohn says he wonders how kids are doing after a case wraps up.
“We really don’t get a lot of the follow-up that we would like. I would like to know what happened to some of these kids,” he says.
Jackson County Deputy District Attorney Zori Cook says she, too, keeps thinking about the children.
Especially as cases get close to trial, she’s in at least weekly contact with children and their families.
“You get to see the kids grow up a little bit,” says Cook, who was a teacher before she became an attorney. “You go through this really emotional experience with them and then you don’t see them again.”
She says it’s hard to let go and not have any control over the outcome of a child’s life.
“The kids I remember the most are the ones I’ve taken through trial and, no matter what the outcome, it’s just, ‘Where are they now? What are they doing now? Are they better off now that they went through a prosecution with us?’ That’s what’s hard — is not knowing anymore,” Cook says.
Sometimes detectives and prosecutors run into families at the grocery store or a restaurant and find out the kids are doing well.
Detective Penn has used texting to get an update.
“The instance that I’m thinking of, the kiddo, she’s an older teenager and so she texted me and her mom texted me and I try to find out how they’re doing,” he says. “Every now and then I just shoot them a text and check in. I let them know I’m thinking of them and say, ‘Hi.’ I think in talking to the parent of this individual it seems to help, just to let them know that I believe in them. I want good things for them.”
Even if they lose touch, detectives and prosecutors say they get something out of every case they work with a child.
Smith-Norton says even the littlest kid can be inspiring.
“I think all of my victims inspire me because they’re so brave to go through this process,” she says. “I mean, I ask myself, ‘Would I put myself through this? Would I have wanted to go through this at their age?’ And I can’t say 100 percent yes. I think they all inspire me that they’re able to stick with this.”
Not all parents support children who disclose abuse
Smith-Norton says it’s hard to see kids who aren’t believed and supported by their parents when they disclose abuse.
Some women side with their perpetrator boyfriend or husband against their own children. They don’t want to believe the abuse happened.
“I had a woman who I had in my office who I had to explain the fact that the offender, her boyfriend, had chlamydia and her 5-year-old had chlamydia was pretty good evidence that this abuse actually occurred. And she just looked at me like I was crazy. Didn’t believe it, wasn’t going to believe it,” Norton-Smith says.
“So it’s pretty inspiring to me that that child could still maintain and still go ahead with her disclosure in the face of the person who’s supposed to love and protect her most not standing by her. I’m amazed by that,” Norton-Smith says. “I don’t know that I’m personally that strong, so I’m pretty inspired by all of my victims, really.”
She says she has to force herself to stay calm in situations like that. Getting angry or upset isn’t going to change anyone’s mind.
“All I can do is try to be logical and explain. If that person does not want to be reached, nothing I say is going to make a difference,” Norton-Smith says. “It makes me really sad for that kid, and it makes me upset and it makes me worry about that child.”
In another case, a mother was absolutely insistent that her boyfriend had not abused her child.
“And it was so hard to meet with this child because she would say in front of this child, ‘Oh, she’s just here to talk about her lies.’ And I’d look at this little girl’s face and it just broke my heart,” Norton-Smith says. “I think of her a lot because off she went with her mom and I wonder how she’s doing. How has this affected her? That’s the hardest part for me because I want to take these kids home when their mother is doing that.”
Smith-Norton says she can’t imagine anything worse than children suffering through abuse, then telling the person who’s supposed to protect them — and not being believed.
Some women would rather call their children liars than break off a relationship with a boyfriend, she says.
“I’d like to think that somehow that child remembers that members of our team believed them, even if mom didn’t believe them. That we cared and that we were there for them — even if mom’s trying to destroy the case the entire time,” Norton-Smith says.
Cook says situations like that make her even more determined.
“At least for me, it makes me a little more insistent that we do stick up for that child. Because they’re not getting the support at home,” she says.
Cook says she’s inspired by kids who tell the truth simply because it’s the right thing to do.
“I had one little one say, ‘When something bad happens, you tell your mom. Something bad happened so I told my mom.’ And it’s just so black-and-white and so great, like something bad happened and you told,” she says.
Children need someone to believe in them
Detective Sandler says she often sees how strong kids are during the sentencing phase, after a person has pleaded guilty or been found guilty during a trial.
Before a judge hands down a sentence, victims can stand up in court and say how the abuse affected them.
“The ones that stand out to me are usually not the victims that have said, ‘I am a victim and I am crushed forever.’ It’s usually the person that says, ‘This bad thing has happened to me, but I will not let it define my life. I’m going to go on in spite of what you did to me and I’m going to succeed in this lifetime.’ And it has given them this strength. That is very powerful,” Sandler says.
She says when kids get physically or sexually abused, it’s often by an adult whom they loved. The hurt and betrayal are compounded if family members or the community rally around the offender and say the abuse never occurred.
But Sandler hopes children gain something from the team of investigators, detectives, therapists and other adults who step in to help.
“I think that’s very powerful for kids because somewhere along the way, usually someone has failed them. Someone has failed in the capacity to help protect that child,” she says.
Kids feel validated when people in positions of power back them up — especially if they aren’t supported at home, Sandler says.
“They need that support in their lives and they need somebody to say, ‘We believe you. We’re going to help you. We’re going to listen,’” she says.