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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Jackson County Senior Deputy District Attorney Terry Smith-Norton, left, and Deputy District Attorney Zori Cook say in child victim cases, the public often has a hard time believing that good people can do bad things.

'The CSI Effect': Public has misconceptions about child victim cases

When it comes to physical and sexual abuse against kids, detectives and prosecutors who work those cases say there are common misconceptions.

Some are about the kids themselves.

Some are about the kinds of people who commit these crimes.

And some are about the evidence.

In recent years, there’s been a boom in the popularity of TV shows about forensic science, such as “Forensic Files,” “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and various spin-offs, like “CSI: Miami.” In these shows, forensic scientists find DNA, test bullets in ballistics labs and hack computers to find evidence.

The popularity of forensic science shows has created something people in law enforcement call “The CSI Effect.”


Jackson County Senior Deputy District Attorney Terry Smith-Norton says some people think every case comes with a load of forensic evidence.

“It’s not like TV. It’s not ‘CSI.’ And I think we struggle against that effect,” she says. “Because jurors expect that now. I’ve had, in jury selection, jurors say they didn’t think they could convict unless you had video of the actual crime occurring. That’s not going to happen in sexual abuse. Generally they’re delayed disclosures. We’re not going to have a lot of DNA evidence. I mean, it’s a rare case where we have that.”

Jurors are told that, under the law, the testimony of any witness they believe is enough to resolve a fact that’s in dispute during a trial, Smith-Norton says.

If a kid and perpetrator are telling completely different stories, the jury can decide whom to believe.

“We have people telling us two different things and we have to use what we know, what skills we’ve developed as adults, to decide what’s more credible,” Smith-Norton says. “We do it all the time and that’s what they have to do in court. And I don’t think people realize that. I think they’re wanting us to have the video or the DNA.”

Medford police Detective Diane Sandler says she also sees “The CSI Effect.”

“In our society now we’re in a ‘CSI’ society where evidence is king. We need DNA evidence — and now electronic evidence. Everybody has a phone. So juries want to believe that there is a mountain of evidence that exists. And a lot of times, what exists in this caseload is the victim’s statement: ‘This is what happened to me.’ They come forward years after the fact, so DNA usually isn’t a piece of the case.”

That doesn’t mean detectives don’t look for other ways to corroborate a victim’s story.

A kid might be able to describe an intimate detail of a sex abuser’s body, or describe a specific blanket or a bedroom where the abuse occurred. There might be evidence on a perpetrator’s phone or computer. A medical exam and rape kit might reveal semen or other DNA sources.

In physical abuse cases, detectives can take photographs of burns, bruises and other injuries. Doctors might find broken bones, internal injuries or bleeding in the brain.

Kids don’t always act like people expect

Prosecutors say juries also have expectations about how kids will act on the witness stand. They believe kids should act scared, cry.

But Jackson County Deputy District Attorney Zori Cook says there’s usually a long gap between when abuse happened and when a case goes to trial.

“I tell my juries now, ‘I have no idea how this child is going to react. I don’t know if they’re going to come in and be resigned and stone-faced and they’ve dealt with this for three years now. It is what it is. If they’re going to cry, if they’re going to be angry, if they’re going to laugh. I have no idea,’” she says.

Cook says people have an expectation that a kid will behave a certain way.

“But if a child isn’t upset or isn’t crying, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” she says.

Jackson County sheriff’s Detective Steve Bohn agrees kids don’t always act like people expect them to. Kids usually live with the abuse for awhile, sometimes for years, before they tell anyone.

“Most of our cases are delayed disclosures. Kids don’t talk right away. And even adults don’t talk about it right away,” Bohn says.

Whether they’re kids or adults, the first response of many victims is that they just want their lives to go back to normal, he says.

From the outside, it might look like they are behaving normally, like nothing ever happened, Bohn says.

Eventually, as they continue to deal with the emotional impact of the abuse — or if the abuse continues — they realize their lives will never go back to normal.

“But they’re trying so hard to get there,” Bohn says.

When kids finally do tell someone about the abuse, they rarely tell the full story all at once, he says.

“And then a lot of times, the public will automatically come to assume that a child is not being truthful when they’ve come out with more information down the road,” Bohn says.

He adds, “But the majority of kids come forward and say, ‘Hey, this happened to me’ to test the waters to see what kind of reaction they’re going to get. Are they going to get supported? Are they going to be believed or not? And they will start with some minor stuff to see what happens. And then once they notice that they are being supported, then kids will come forward with more information.”

Cook, the prosecutor, also says kids tell their story in bits and pieces. They also don’t tell what happened in a logical, linear way from start to finish, she says.

When a story comes out years after abuse began, people sometimes turn on the victim, Cook says.

“And so people say things like, ‘Well, why did you put up with it for that long? Why didn’t you tell immediately?’ Well, I mean, look at adults. Adults who are sexually assaulted or physically assaulted don’t immediately report, either,” she says.

Detective Bohn says people don’t understand how the average kid or adult reacts to sexual assault.

“And a lot of people will say, ‘If that’s going to happen, they’re going to fight back,’ he says.

But statistics show most people just freeze. Bohn says that instinct to freeze often kicks in automatically during threatening situations.

He notes new police officers have to be trained to react and take action when faced with danger. Otherwise they might just stand there.

Society doesn’t teach kids and adults how to fight back during a sexual assault, Bohn says.

When people do warn kids to watch out for danger, they usually think about the stranger in a van who grabs a kid from a bus stop. Or the creepy guy offering a piece of candy.

But Cook says people are usually looking in the wrong place.

Good people do bad things

“Everybody talks about stranger danger. If we’re talking about protecting kids, it’s not so much stranger danger, it’s the uncle, the brother. It’s people that you know. If you want to be really cognizant of child abuse, it’s in your inner circle,” she says. “And so if a child comes to you and says a neighbor or a friend, somebody, did something weird, or if they’re acting strange, there’s probably a reason.”

Cook says adults need to take the disclosures of kids seriously.

“Don’t just discount your child because you don’t want to believe that bad things happen, because they do,” she says.

Movies and television have taught the public that bad people look bad. They’re sinister. They look mean.

But Smith-Norton says people who seem good might have secrets. Again and again, she sees a perpetrator’s supporters show up in court.

“It would be nice, in my view, if people would realize that just because you know Bob, and Bob seems like a wonderful guy, you may not know all of the sides of Bob,” Smith-Norton says. “And if a small child is saying he did something, you really need to give that its due.”

Smith-Norton says it’s especially frustrating when perpetrators are part of a community, like a school or church, and people pack the courtroom to show their support — without knowing the facts.

“I think that I would probably hesitate before I rallied around that person,” she says. “I mean, it’s their right. But I think people need to realize that it can be the person who seems really nice — and part of the reason he’s successful at gaining access to other people’s children is that he’s really nice. And they’re very adept at manipulating and giving off that perception so that they can be a trusted person in that child’s life.

“So I think people need to realize that and maybe not be so quick to rally around that person without knowing more.”

Cook says defendants are rarely 100 percent good or 100 percent bad.

It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around the fact that a sexual abuser may have done many good things.

Or that an otherwise good parent might lose it one day and severely injure a baby or child.

“There’s no element in the crimes that we charge that says you have to be a bad person. And good people do bad things. Bad people do good things,” Cook says.

She says she wishes people would wait for the facts to emerge instead of instantly saying, “‘There’s no way that teacher could have done that. There’s no way my priest could have done that.’ There is. We see it literally every day.”

Detective Sandler agrees that perpetrators often seem trustworthy. People who like the accused person don’t want to think they misjudged the person so completely. They want to believe their people-reading radar is accurate, she says.

But perpetrators can be pillars of the community, Sandler says.

Physical and sexual abuse of kids crosses all ages, races and income levels, she says.

“We know that perpetrators are seemingly really good people. I have arrested pastors. I’ve arrested police officers. This affects everyone,” Sandler says.

She says when the public puts too much trust in a person, boundaries get blurred and a perpetrator gains access to society’s most vulnerable population — its kids.

Further complicating the trust issue, Sandler says perpetrators purposefully target kids who are vulnerable. They look for kids who will not be believed, she says.

Even if detectives and prosecutors back a kid and move forward with a criminal case, that child is still the kid the perpetrator thought wouldn’t be believed or supported, Sandler says. And that plays out in the courtroom.

There’s often an outpouring of support for the perpetrator and little support for the victim, she says.

“I can’t tell you how many sentencings I’ve been to where half of the courtroom is full of people that stand up for and love the suspect,” Sandler says. “And the victim sits with one friend or one relative on the other side.”

There’s no mandatory arrest law in child beating cases

Domestic violence cases involving adults are a daily fixture of life in Jackson County Circuit Court.

Cases involving physical and sexual abuse of kids are less frequent — even though most kids are smaller and more vulnerable than adults.

That’s because laws are different for kids and adults, Detective Sandler says.

“There’s a mandatory arrest law when adults get injured in an altercation with their loved ones, with the people that they live with. That’s not the case, there’s not a mandatory arrest law regarding children,” she says.

Even if a kid gets injured, the law might look at that as an example of a parent legally disciplining a child.

It’s up to juries to decide whether a parent’s actions crossed the line between legal discipline and abuse.

“I’ve had children that have had bruising from their shoulders all the way down their backside and thought that would have been a great case, an over-discipline to the point of an assault, but the jury didn’t think so,” Sandler says.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but sexual abuse is sometimes easier to prove in court than physical abuse.

There’s no issue of discipline versus abuse.

Sandler says most cases involving sexual abuse revolve around the ages of the victim and offender.

No one has to decide whether it’s OK for a 50-year-old to have sex with an 11-year-old, she says.

“It’s against the law. There’s no debating that,” Sandler says. “When you have a child that has bruises, it’s the exact opposite. People have to say, ’Well, is that actually abuse, or is that a parent legally discipling their child for something?’”

In cases of physical abuse, Sandler says it’s important to get kids to honestly describe the pain they felt from injuries.

“And for children, that can be a real scary place to be because they want to minimize what the perpetrator has done. Because we know in all child abuse cases, whether it’s sexual or physical, the perpetrators are people that they love and care about and usually people that have direct control over the child. They’re living in their house. They feed them their meals. They buy them their school clothes,” Sandler says.

Detectives have to remember that kids usually still love their abusers.

“To be able to talk about the assault and not minimize can be very difficult. Because children also want to be strong. They want to go on and say, ‘Well that really didn’t hurt.’ But we need a child to say that it hurt and there was substantial pain, not just that it hurt for a couple minutes and never hurt again,” Sandler says.

Why some cases end with plea agreements

Prosecutors and detectives say the public has a lot of misconceptions about why some cases go to trial and why others end with a plea agreement.

When a kid is severely injured and there’s a mountain of evidence, an accused person might accept a plea offer. Even if the offer is a years-long prison sentence. Or the person might decide to roll the dice and go to trial.

Sandler says the egregious cases often don’t go to trial.

But defense attorneys might recommend their clients fight if a case is in the gray area between discipline and abuse.

Sandler says, “The cases that go to trial are going to be the difficult cases, the ones where a good defense might be able to say, ‘We feel like this was discipline and we can prove that in court.’ And everybody that’s sitting in that jury box has a history and they all are sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, could that be me? I’ve spanked my child. Could that be me?’ So then it really becomes a tipping point. Is there enough bruising? Is there enough injury?”

Prosecutors sometimes get a bad rap for offering plea deals.

Smith-Norton says prosecutors weigh many factors before offering a plea agreement. And they consult with victims and their families first, she says.

Saving an emotionally fragile child from going through a grueling trial can be important.

Or, if there isn’t much forensic evidence, getting a person to enter a guilty plea to a lesser charge with a light sentence is better than nothing.

At least then the person could be ordered to register as a sex offender and go through treatment, Smith-Norton says.

“In the perfect world, we’d get the maximum sentence,” she says. “But we’re not dealing with the perfect world. We’re dealing with the system that we have. These offers are not made because we’re lazy or afraid to go to trial. But we’re taking into account all of the factors that we have, trying to assess the case, and we don’t do that lightly.”

It’s up to the public to help end child abuse

Ultimately, Detective Sandler says police and prosecutors can’t fight child abuse on their own.

Most states — including Oregon — have mandatory reporter laws. Teachers, doctors and other professionals have to report suspected physical or sexual abuse of kids. But Sandler wants everyone to take responsibility.

If you see something, say something.

Act like a mandatory reporter.

“It’s my hope that by the end of my career everybody’s a mandatory reporter,” Sandler says. “You see a kid that something’s just not right, that you phone that in. And let the professionals sort through it and figure out if it’s true or if it needs to be investigated.

“But if there’s just an inkling, reach out and hopefully that at least starts some sort of documented paper trail that something might not be right in that particular household.”

To report suspected child abuse in the Jackson County area, call the Oregon Department of Human Services in Medford at 541-858-3197, the sheriff’s office at 541-774-6800, Oregon State Police at 541-776-6114 or a city police department.

If a child is being hurt or is in danger right now, call 911.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

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