Local sex abuse case highlights changes in small town safety

Chad Smith

A Spring Valley 12-year-old who was a victim of sexual abuse highlights the reality that children aren’t as safe as they once were in small-town America.

Fillmore Country Attorney Brett Corson prosecuted the perpetrator, who was sentenced to 91 months in prison after a trial this summer. He said it’s unfortunate that these kinds of crimes are showing up more often in small towns.

“Unfortunately, we see many different kinds of cases like this,” Corson said. “In this particular case, the person starts as a stranger to the victim. They kind of work their way into the situation because they might know friends of the child, or they might just be watching a particular child over time.

“The other group of offenders is typically family members, including uncles, siblings, and sometimes even parents. However, the most common thing you’ll see is someone that’s able to establish a relationship with the intended victim. It’s rarely a snatch-and-grab kind of incident.”

One of the big challenges in these kinds of cases is the parents may not know that something is wrong. That might be due in part to the age of the victim, who may not realize that something wrong has happened to them.

“In many instances, the child gets used to being around the person,” Corson said. “Something happens in a semi-private setting and if it’s a young child, they may not know what happened to them is wrong because they’re getting touched in private places.

“However, if they do know it’s wrong, they may have a bunch of mixed feelings,” he added. “The victims may think they’re actually the bad person because they let someone do this to them and didn’t fight and scream. Then, they aren’t sure if they can tell their parents. That feeling is even stronger when it’s a family member that did the inappropriate touching.”

Corson says many parents may have already told their children to say something if someone touches them inappropriately, but that sometimes still doesn’t make it easier to open up and say something. He says parents need to be “on guard” and make sure they “educate their children” about this.

The mother of the 12-year-old who suffered the abuse took a very brave step and reached out to the Bluff Country News Group to remind area residents that “just because we live in a small town doesn’t mean this won’t happen.” The name of the mother isn’t being revealed because that would identify the victim, who is a minor.

She said her family felt that a small town was a safe place but “then it was not.” She found out firsthand how hard it was for a child in this situation to tell her parents about the abuse.

“We want people to know that kids won’t always talk about it,” she said. “We were very lucky that my daughter eventually talked about what was happening. The person who eventually found out something was seriously wrong was her teacher. Otherwise, she may not have told me anything.”

The other concern she has is the abuser was sentenced to 91 months in prison, but then he will be out in society again and “he may do it again. He won’t stop, we know that,” she said.

Corson says it’s important for parents to explain to their kids that mom and dad are allowed to touch private areas for things like bathing them. He said kids have to know where their private spots are and who’s allowed to touch them and why. The first step in educating kids is in the home.

“Let them know they can tell you anytime someone touches them in their private areas,” Corson said. “The other thing parents can keep an eye out for is something we in the court system call the ‘grooming process.’ Social workers who look into potential child abuse cases will look carefully for signs of a ‘grooming process’ when they begin an investigation.

“The ‘grooming process’ typically involves someone else spending an unusual amount of time with a child. It can also involve taking the child somewhere to be alone with them, giving them unusual gifts, sitting on their lap, or having the child kiss them on the cheek to get them used to physical affection. Parents may not want to be paranoid, but they should keep an eye out for this kind of thing too.

“You don’t want to be ‘helicopter parents’ in most cases. If your kid walks over to the neighbors, you don’t always want to feel like you have to walk with them. Give your children the things they’ll need to know if these kinds of situations arise.”

Another important thing to teach children is to have them tell responsible adults if another child tells them something bad happened. Corson says it’s teaching your children to see something-say something.

“It’s important to teach your kids that if a friend says something bad happened to them, your child should let you know about it,” Corson said. “Children often find it easier to share with other children when something bad happens.

“That’s what happened in the case we’re talking about,” Corson added. “Children will often tell one of their friends that someone did something to them, with those friends going and telling their parents or another adult.”

Corson says if parents suspect anything unseemly is happening, it’s important to not be afraid to contact law enforcement. He says a process is already in place to make it less frightening for the child to come in and talk to officials about what may or may not have happened.

“If a parent calls law enforcement to report something may have happened,” Corson says, “we’ll ask them to bring the child in to talk to a social worker. We have a room set up that’s very child-friendly, unlike the old days when we interviewed kids at the jail. We didn’t want little kids to have to come into a frightening place like a jail to talk to officials.

 “The Social Services Building has that kid-friendly room ready to go. One person will interview them in the room and we’ll audio-and-videotape it because that’s now evidence. We’ll also have people observing the interview to make sure the social worker doesn’t miss any details. We try to make it as friendly as possible for the child.”

Once the interview and investigation are complete, that’s when law enforcement decides on charges.

The mother of the Spring Valley victim said protecting other kids was the reason they went to court, even though that can be difficult for the child.

“That was the main reason we wanted to go ahead and press charges,” she said. “We wanted to protect the other children. My daughter was very brave to speak up. She’s a hero.”