Charges of child sexual abuse are rare, but conviction rate is high

March 17, 2004|HERB BROCK

Editor's note: This is the third and final story in a three-part series about the Child Advocacy Center of the Bluegrass, which has served child sexual abuse victims in Boyle, Garrard and Mercer counties for 10 years.

The interviews, medical examination and criminal investigation are over. It is now time to determine if a report of child sexual abuse rises to the level of a court case.

Once all the findings are in from the Child Advocacy Center of the Bluegrass staff and its physician and from social workers and law enforcement personnel, they are turned over to the commonwealth's attorney to determine of charges will be filed against the alleged perpetrator.

More often than not, charges are not filed.

"Of the cases we handle, only 10 to 12 percent are litigated," said CAC executive director Kelly Roberts. "In many cases, there just isn't any evidence or enough evidence of sexual abuse. In other cases, the children may end up recanting, and sometimes that is because their parents either haven't believed them from the beginning or have been involved in the abuse and finally were able to intimidate (the children) into changing their stories.


"Child sexual abuse rarely leaves physical marks and, so, is hard to prove because it boils down to a child's word against an adult's, and it is often difficult to convince other adults, even the non-offending parents of the victim, that it has occurred."

In those one out of every 10 cases that do go to court, Roberts said a variety of charges may be filed, ranging from major ones such as child sexual abuse, sexual assault, sodomy or rape, in the first, second and third degrees, to less serious ones such as sexual misconduct and unlawful transaction with a minor.

The prosecution goes into the vast majority of court proceedings with the goal of getting the perpetrator to plea bargain before a trial, she said, so the child and his or her family won't have to "relive" the abuse and do so with the media and public looking on.

"And even though the case may be rock solid, the same disbelief that many parents have toward their own child's story is shared by many adults in general, and that applies to jurors," said Roberts. "We've found perpetrators also want to avoid the spectacle of an embarrassing trial and are willing to plea bargain, and that means we are not faced with having to convince jurors who often are skeptical of children's stories."

Prosecution generally will not put victim on the stand

If there is a trial, she said, the prosecution generally will not put the alleged victim on the stand because he or she generally is easily intimidated by defense attorneys and witnesses.

"However, some of our older kids really want to be put on the stand. They relish the opportunity to tell their stories directly, face-to-face, to the abuser," said Roberts.

But whether it's a plea bargain or a trial, those child sexual abuse cases that do go to court usually result in convictions, she said.

"Not that many child sexual abuse reports ever make it to court, but for those that do, there is a very high conviction rate," said Roberts.

The end of litigation doesn't necessarily close the book on a case, at least not at the CAC, she said.

"One of our functions is to take part in criminal investigations, but our overall mission, whether there are court proceedings or not, is crisis intervention," Roberts said. "That means we are there not just to assist authorities in going after perpetrators, but, just as importantly or more so, we are there to help victims deal with what happened to them."

That help takes many forms, including counseling and other kinds of therapy, plus referrals to support groups sponsored by the center or by local social-service and mental health organizations.

Some of the groups and programs include one for teenage girls and boys that attempts to address self-esteem, anger management, stress reduction and other issues that abused young people must deal with.

"Many kids suffer from low self-esteem following abuse, which often has been occurring for years," Roberts said. "And this condition often leads to or is compounded by depression, not only over what happened and by whom but also over not being believed by parents and other family members, and also by drug and alcohol abuse, uncontrollable anger, undisciplined sexual behavior and early, out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

"A case may be over, legally, but it can last the rest of a victim's life unless there is meaningful intervention at many levels. We try to do our part in that intervention in concert with a multidisciplinary team of professionals on the ground, including the child protective service social workers, who do an outstanding job, and the police, who work hard as well."

As for the perpetrators, there also are counseling and support programs for them, but they generally are not successful, she said.

"With good and continuous counseling and other therapies and support, child sexual abuse victims can move on and lead good, productive lives and develop loving, caring relationships with people," said Roberts. "But perpetrators have been very difficult to rehabilitate, and this is unfortunate for them, for future victims, for society as a whole."

For information about the Children's Advocacy Center of the Bluegrass, write the CAC at 183 Walton Ave., Lexington, Ky. 40508, call it at 859-225-KIDS (5437) or find its Web site at

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