Editor’s note: This is the last story in a series about Child Safe of Central Missouri Inc., an advocacy agency that coordinates the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases. The victims who spoke to the Democrat for this story asked only their first names be used.
Nearly a month after 13-year-old Marie told her mother she was being sexually abused by her step-uncle Mike, he was arrested. But it took almost a year for the case to work its way through the court system.
Only about 10 percent of the cases that Child Safe is involved in will go to prosecution, generally because of lack of evidence. Pettis County Prosecuting Attorney Jeff Mittelhauser said when he receives a case he looks through the law enforcement investigation as well as the “quality of disclosure” a child makes. Because Child Safe records all its forensic interviews with children, Mittelhauser can also hear a child’s story of abuse in their own words.
“It’s helpful because it lets me make a judgment about if a child could step into a courtroom, much less testify,” he said.
Going to court
The court process against Uncle Mike was frustrating, Kathryn said.
“He kept getting continuances,” she said. “I went to every single court hearing. (Pettis County) has a great victim advocate who was wonderful; she kept me informed about ‘this is what’s probably going to happen today.’ I didn’t have to go to court, she would have called me and told me what happened, but it didn’t matter. I wanted to be in that courtroom.”
After a year of investigation and continuances, Mittelhauser spoke to Kathryn about her options.
“He told me if we go to trial Marie would have to testify and if the jury didn’t believe her, Mike might get off free,” Kathryn said.
The sixth amendment guarantees a person the right to face their accuser in court, no matter how young. The Child Safe DVDs can be played at the trial, in addition to a child’s testimony.
“The first time we have to go through to make sure the DVD is admissible is a 491 hearing,” said Child Safe Forensic Interviewer Beth Jackman. “The DVD is considered hearsay so I come in and testify about my credentials and what the DVD includes. I’ve never had a case where it was not admitted.”
The DVD allows a jury to see the child in the weeks or sometimes just days after they disclosed abuse. Often there’s a time lag between the original investigation and a trial, so the 7-year-old who was sexually abused by a family member may be taking the stand as a 10-year-old who has gone through counseling.
“It really allows the jury to see the child as they were at the time,” Jackman said.
The other option for Kathryn to consider was allowing Mittelhauser to offer Uncle Mike a plea agreement. The jail time would be less but he would have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
“After talking with (Mittelhauser) and the victim advocate I decided the best thing for Marie would be to not take this to trial,” she said. “I didn’t want to make her testify and us not win the case. What does that tell a child? You tell the truth about this horrible thing and no one believes you. I couldn’t do that to her.”
Uncle Mike spent a year in jail on second degree child molestation and first degree sexual misconduct charges and is currently registered as a sex offender.
“He wanted probation,” Mittelhauser said of the case. “When you’re talking about going to a jury or reducing charges in exchange for a plea agreement, you have to be reasonable about what could happen. With (Marie’s case) I told her parents it was a good case, but it could go either way.”
‘You have to talk about it.’
Along with the family, the investigative team members are all kept apprised of the case, something that’s unique to the Child Safe model.
“It really holds you accountable, I think,” said Sedalia Police Department Det. Jill Green. “With other cases, I hand them off to Jeff and then don’t really hear about them until I get a subpoena to testify in court. With Child Safe we meet every month to go over pending cases.”
Those monthly meetings — which involve the Child Safe forensic interviewers, child advocates, law enforcement officials, workers with Children’s Division and a Pettis County Victim Advocate — inform the team about all pending cases. Jackman estimated there are 20 to 30 open cases in Pettis County at any given time.
“Sometimes we’re talking about a case where the disclosure happened two years ago,” she said. “But it’s important. We’re able to share information and talk about these cases and where they are.”
With Uncle Mike in jail, Kathryn continued to try and help Marie heal and was able to get free counseling for her daughter through Child Safe.
“We were able to be fit in that day (that Marie first went to Child Safe), which was a relief to me,” Kathryn said. “The first time we went together, then (Marie) went alone for the next few sessions. My insurance has pretty expensive co-pays for counseling but they didn’t bill me or ask for a co-pay at all. The No. 1 priority was my daughter, making sure she was OK.”
Kathryn said she and her family still talk about Marie’s abuse.
“You have to talk about it,” she said. “(Marie) did nothing wrong, she was innocent. If you don’t talk about it and just bury it, that doesn’t do any good. You have to get rid of the ugly shame.”
A few years ago Kathryn decided to be proactive in talking about abuse. Through her employer she created a fundraiser for Child Safe.
“We put on a family portrait event, where our employees can have portraits taken and then be offered packages at a discounted rate,” she said. “The $5 sitting fee goes to Child Safe as a donation. I always tell Carolyn (Green, Child Safe’s Executive Director) that I wish the community didn’t need her, that Child Safe didn’t need to exist. But, unfortunately, it does. So I’m trying to help as much as I can to make sure other children get the same kind of care that (Marie) got.”
As for Marie, eight years after she was abused she’s doing well, Kathryn said.
“She graduated high school and was involved in the A+ program at community college,” she said. “She’s an LPN now working at a hospital. She’s a very caring person, loves to help the sick and older patients. She has a good, kind heart.”
Like any mother, Kathryn worries about her daughter and if the events that happened nearly a decade ago are still being felt.
“There are ups and downs, she went through a lot of confidence issues when she was a teenager, but she’s OK now,” she said. “She’s not scarred by this. She’s doing well.”