116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — When a Linn County jury last year acquitted a man accused of sexually abusing a 16-year-old girl for more than a year, the teenager within weeks transformed from being 'spitfire and comedy' to 'emotionally boiling over,' her mom says.
'I didn't know,' said Kay, the mother, as tears filled her eyes. 'She was 14 when she first told me. It came out in sporadic statements. She said, 'Do you think I'm disgusting?' I knew then, and I took her to the police department. I knew not to ask any more — so I wouldn't compromise the investigation.'
The fact the case went to trial is unusual in Linn County — figures show most end in plea deals. But having gone to trial, it's not at all unusual the jury found the accused not guilty.
It is exceedingly difficult to make child sexual abuse cases stick at trial, according to prosecutors, police and advocates, because months may have passed before the abuse came to light, child witnesses may waver and there seldom is the additional physical evidence jurors crave.
'It's the No. 1 hardest crime to prosecute,' said Cedar Rapids police Officer Charity Hansel, who investigated sex and internet crimes against children for 11 years.
Hansel said she had a case several years ago where jurors asked afterward why police hadn't fingerprinted the child's genital area.
'Because it's not possible,' Hansel said. 'TV crime shows and the internet is killing us because people see these cases where two felony crimes are solved in an hour, and there is all kinds of physical evidence and witnesses. In sexual assaults, 85 percent of the victims don't report and it comes down to he said, she said.'
As is the case with most sexual abuse and assault incidents, The Gazette is not using Kay's full name in this article to protect her daughter's identity.
Kay said she did not know the details of what was alleged to have happened to her daughter at the hands of a relative until the trial.
Indeed, the major evidence in the case, as in many other such cases, was the child's testimony, said First Assistant Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks.
'It should be enough to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt if you believe the child,' he said. 'She provided credible testimony with many details of the abuse. I have no doubt she was telling the truth.'
Kay said she and her daughter were in shock after the man was found not guilty. Her daughter broke down outside court and cried for days.
'It was her decision to testify, and it was important that she got to say what she wanted to say,' Kay said. 'I just didn't want her to be hurt again. I'm not sure I could do it (testify). When you have a baby … you don't think there will be nothing to help,' Kay said, tears welling up again.
After the trial, jurors told Maybanks they believed the teen but needed 'something more,' he said. They questioned the police investigation — things they thought investigators should have done. Maybanks said police were thorough, but there was no physical evidence.
'If prosecutors are going to be held to this kind of standard in these cases, then it will affect how we file charges,' Maybanks said. 'I don't think there should have to be evidence of physical harm in order to prosecute a sexual abuse.'
CASES POSE DILEMMAS
Eighty-three child sexual abuse cases have been filed in Linn County since 2013, with nine still pending, according to unofficial numbers provided by the county attorney to St. Luke's Child Protection Center.
Of the 74 resolved cases, only six went to trial, and defendants were acquitted in five of those.
Sixty-one cases ended in plea agreements. Four cases were dismissed and two were transferred to Juvenile Court.
'It was her decision to testify, and it was important that she got to say what she wanted to say,. I just didn't want her to be hurt again. I'm not sure I could do it (testify). When you have a baby … you don't think there will be nothing to help."
Whose daughter testified in a recent sexual assault trial
Maybanks estimated the conviction rate at 88 percent for Linn County child sex abuse cases over the last four years — a 'fair rate of resolution' for the state and victims, he said.
But the best resolution, he added, may not be a trial. By avoiding trial, a child doesn't have to testify and tell strangers and a judge intimate details of how 'their childhood is stolen.'
Maybanks said he always consults with parents about going to trial, but ultimately it's his decision.
'It's more important to me that we've helped a child,' Maybanks said while sitting at his desk, which has Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots and two racetracks for child victims to play with when they meet with him. 'That's a bigger victory than putting away a person for more time.'
Penalties for child sex abuse crimes range from lascivious conduct with a minor, a serious misdemeanor that could bring a year in prison, up to felony second-degree sexual abuse drawing a 25-year term.
The offender must serve 70 percent of the sentence before being eligible for parole, and then on the registry for 10 years to life, depending on the offense. And also depending on the offense, the abuser is subject to special parole of between 10 years and life.
'JUST WANT IT TO STOP'
Hansel, now a school resource officer at Kennedy High School, has worked many high-profile cases, including the sexual assault and murder of 10-year-old Jetseta Gage in 2005. Roger Bentley was convicted of kidnapping and killing Jetseta in 2006, and his brother, James Bentley, who sexually abused the child, was convicted in federal court in 2007 and also in Benton County in 2008. Both are in prison.
'I can count on one hand how many children were not telling the truth in all the years I investigated these cases,' Hansel said. 'Children are not mentally developed enough or experienced enough to make up a detailed lie and be able to maintain it.'
Hansel said the burden of proof for probable cause to arrest someone in sex abuse cases is high, and she never wanted to arrest an innocent person because then the 'real suspect' would have the opportunity to abuse another child.
Sandra Fischer, a psychologist with Tanager Place, a Cedar Rapids center helping children and families, agreed with Hansel that children don't have a motive to lie about something as traumatic as sexual abuse.
'I can count on one hand how many children were not telling the truth in all the years I investigated these cases. Children are not mentally developed enough or experienced enough to make up a detailed lie and be able to maintain it.'
- Charity Hansel
Cedar Rapids police officer
Cases of parents 'coaching' a child seldom happen, she said.
'Kids worry about it happening to another,' said Fischer, who starts her own practice in May. 'It's not about revenge or justice for them. They just want it to stop and for someone to believe them.'
Children who've been abused, she said, are being asked to do something most adults don't want to do — talk about sexual acts. If a case goes to trial, they have to see the accused abuser in court and testify.
'Ninety percent of sexual abuse happens by someone the child likes, loves or lives with,' Fischer said. 'It's not going to be a stranger. It's someone who has access to the child and someone they trust.'
Anastasia Wilson, victim/witness coordinator with Linn County Attorney's Office, said it's common that a child doesn't provide all the details of the abuse in the beginning of an investigation — instead revealing details over time.
Sometimes, more information comes out after a St. Luke's Hospital Child Protection Center interview, and then the prosecutor sends the child back to the center for another interview.
That interview is taped, along with the child's testimony, Wilson said. The video recordings usually are allowed at trial. But not always.
A judge in 2014 allowed Maybanks to show the interview of a 9-year-old girl who testified at trial she couldn't remember the sexual abuse. But as a 6-year-old, she told a Child Protection Center forensic interviewer that James Olds, 48, of Marion, sexually assaulted her, touched her, exposed himself and took illicit photos of her.
Olds was convicted, but the jury also heard other evidence, including that he posted a photo of the girl on social media, saying she was 'sexy.'
Assistant Linn County Attorney Jordan Schier prosecuted a sexual abuse case two weeks ago where the judge didn't allow the video because the 7-year-old girl, at trial, recanted the sexual abuse she described in the video and said she didn't remember. The defendant was acquitted.
Rosanne Van Cura, a supervisor and forensic interviewer with the Child Protection Center, said some children change their stories or take back what they've said — but it's not common. She also said there have been cases where the child may not tell anyone of the abuse for weeks or months. In one case, it was four years.
It's also not unusual, she said, for a child to provide different information to different people. Their age, she said, also impacts what details they can provide.
Van Cura said when a child is brought in for an interview, the interviewer first meets with investigators from the Iowa Department of Human Services or law enforcement to learn about the child, such as family and school information, medical issues and what the child has alleged.
The child and forensic interviewer go into one room; investigators observe from a room next door where the child can't see them.
The interviewer's questions are open-ended — avoiding yes or no answers, Van Cura said. Their job is to listen to the child and try to get as many details as possible, such as clothing worn by the abuser, what the room looked like, the lighting, the time of day.
These details can be used as evidence and can add to the child's credibility, she said.
'Many kids are matter of fact about it,' Van Cura said. 'They may not be emotional. Others may be shy talking about it. Teens are usually different — more teary.'
Fischer said she thinks the emotion of the child can affect jurors.
'I think jurors expect kids to break down and cry or be able to fully tell their story like an adult,' Fischer said. 'Kids communicate differently. And you have to remember by the time this goes to court, the child has been questioned numerous times and talked about the abuse.'
'THINK LIKE A CHILD'
Officer Hansel said it's possible to get corroborating evidence even when there's a lack of physical evidence.
'We can nail down as many details as possible, even the most insignificant,' she said.
In one of Hansel's cases, a little girl said she watched Brer Rabbit on the abuser's television, which was unusual because the old cartoon isn't generally available.
Investigators searched the suspect's home for a video but found nothing. They then checked video rentals and discovered the suspect's wife, who ran a day care, had rented a Brer Rabbit video. It didn't prove the assault, but it helped corroborate the child's story.
In another case, a 3-year-old girl described the man's genitals as green, which Hansel knew didn't make sense. But when she started thinking about what a child would see. Hansel asked the suspected abuser what color of underwear he wore. Usually green, he had said.
'We have to think outside the box — think like a child,' Hansel said. 'Think like the victim.'
Maybanks agreed, saying he will continue to work with law enforcement to put together solid investigations and keep believing children who are brave enough to come forward.
'I want to make sure we can help as many kids feel they are safe and loved,' he said.
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