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Sex abuse victims need expert investigation teams, panel says

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September 29, 2015

As seen originally in Argus Leader.

Any child who reports sexual abuse ought to be evaluated in a child advocacy center and every possible criminal case should be funneled through a regional team of experts, according to members of a task force on abuse that met in Pierre Monday.

Getting to that point could be difficult and expensive in a rural state like South Dakota, however, legislators on the Jolene’s Law Task Force said.

The group is nearing the end of its second year of study on how child sexual abuse is handled in South Dakota. The group will make a report to Gov. Dennis Daugaard and make recommendations to the legislature on possible changes to the law.

The task force is named for Jolene Loetscher, a victim of abuse who’s become an advocate for children throughout hearings in Pierre.

Child advocacy centers have experts trained in speaking with young children about sexual crimes and the handling of evidence in criminal cases, but there are only three in the state: One in Pierre, another in Sioux Falls and a third in Rapid City. The lack of a center in the northeast means that some cases are handled by law enforcement officials without specialized training.

The task force’s members grappled in their fourth meeting of 2015 about how to connect children with the centers, but the members generally agreed that children need those connections for their own well-being and prosecutors benefit from professional expertise in abuse investigation.

“We’re getting to the point where we want every victim of child sexual abuse to go to a (child advocacy center),” said Sen. Deb Soholt, the task force’s chair.

Nationally, Soholt said, child advocacy centers are the starting point in sex abuse cases, but not all kids in South Dakota have access to one.

The state’s three non-tribal centers do have the capacity to see more children, according to task force member Casey Murschel, but the space between centers and population centers or rural communities makes the trip difficult for some law enforcement agencies.

Regional multi-disciplinary teams with officers, prosecutors, social workers, counselors and forensic interviewers could be helpful, she said, if funding were available for training. Video conferencing and satellite offices for child advocacy centers could work, as well.

“All those things would be possible if the desire is there,” Murschel said.

Sen. Alan Solano likes the idea of requiring a center visit for all victims, but worried about the ability of rural law enforcement to handle it.

Meeting national standards, which suggest that every child should be seen at a center within two hours of reporting abuse, could force counties to go without police coverage for hours at a time as children are transported to the nearest center.

“What does that do to that law enforcement agency where you’ve only got one deputy on at the time?” Solano asked.

Rep. Peggy Gibson of Huron wondered aloud how she’d sell a requirement for a visit to a center to her local law enforcement community. Children who report abuse in the Huron area are often taken to Sioux Falls or Pierre, both of which are about two hours from town.

“Are we going to require that two-hour time limit?” Gibson asked.

Hollie Strand, a forensic interviewer from Rapid City, sees a need to move sexual abuse victims into the safe space of a child advocacy center quickly, as opposed to a police station.

“It should be ‘you don’t get to decide. If you have a child sexual abuse case, you go to a CAC,’” Strand said.

A strict requirement that all children reporting sexual abuse be seen at a center is unworkable with the state’s current resources, said Daniele Dosch, a victim specialist for the Federal Bureau of Investigation based out of Rapid City.

“I don’t know that we’re at a point where we could mandate this,” Dosch said.

Before the task force’s next meeting, the group will map out of possible solutions to the accessibility question. Regional centers or response points could help make reporting and investigating easier.

Soholt asked members to worry more about the ideal response to child sexual abuse, rather than the roadblocks funding might present.

“If we lead with the funding question, we will always talk ourselves out of it,” Soholt said.

The group’s work in 2014 led to the passage of a law requiring all mandatory reporters – teachers, doctors, nurses, child care providers and the like – to report disclosures of suspected sexual abuse directly to police.

Reporting to supervisors first can create a telephone chain effect, as a child’s words change from report to report. That can create confusion for prosecutors and provides fuel for defense attorneys later on.

Another possible change for the next session could include periodic recertification for mandatory reporters or changes in wording to child abuse statutes that would help define which agencies respond to abuse reports.

The group’s next meeting will take place on Oct. 26, with a final meeting to follow on Nov. 17.

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