Child abuse cases drop but county’s response strong as ever

The prevalence of child abuse in Sanpete County has ebbed and flowed throughout the years, according to Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels, but right now, and for the past two years, the number of cases in Sanpete County has trended downward.

 “We see ebbs and flows,” Daniels said. “We happen to be on a downside” in terms of the number of cases reported.

Robert Stevens / Messenger Photo
Diane Keeler, is the director of the Children’s Justice Center in Ephraim, a home-like place where children can come to be interviewed by speciallly selected law enforcement officers about experiences with sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect. She is holding a Teddy Bear children can hold and play with while receiving services. She believes child abuse will tick back up as COVID subsides.

“It is tough to attribute the trend to one particular factor,” he said. However, Daniels said the downswing might reflect perpetrators having limited access to others during the pandemic.

“Very rarely do we see a biological father sexually abuse a biological child,” he said. “We see stepfather; we see adopted father, unfortunately, but biological is quite rare.”

The Children’s Justice Center (CJC) in Ephraim, which provides a comfortable atmosphere for abused children and families to report child abuse and begin the long road to recovery, has kept track of child abuse case numbers for several years. In 2018, there were 101 cases; in 2019, 96 cases; in 2020, 75 cases; and in the first four months of 2021, there have been 16 cases. 

Like Daniels, Diane Keeler, director of the CJC, believes the caseload drop may reflect the pandemic—the fact that school teachers, church leaders and other youth leaders have not been interacting with kids as frequently.

 But she adds that people have been so focused on facemasks and COVID that they may have failed to look out for trauma in our children. “Abuse doesn’t stop just because the focus is off,” she said.

Keeler believes child abuse cases will tick back up as COVID subsides. In the meantime, she is encouraging people to start looking out for signs of child abuse (see related story). And heed the motto of April’s National Child Abuse Prevention Month to “prevent it with a purpose.”

Schools and churches are typically places where children feel safe to disclose their abuse, Keeler said. “We are hopeful as children interact again with outside influences, these children (who have been abused) will be picked up and provided the services they so desperately deserve.”

The CJC deals with child sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect cases. The center is a safe place where victims and their families can come together with law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers, and medical and mental health professionals.

 “We all meet in a comfortable setting and set up the interview so the child only talks about the incident once,” Keeler said.

After that, the CJC works to reduce the trauma for the children and families, and provide recovery services. The CJC has recently applied for a grant under the federal Victims-of-Crime Act to fund mental health services, Keeler said. “We can now provide medical, physical and mental health services to abused children throughout the county.”

 As the county attorney in charge of prosecuting child abuse cases, Daniels is known as a bulldog who will not give up on child abuse cases, even though some of them may drag on for months, if not years, Keeler said.

“The most important cases that my office prosecutes are cases that involve child abuse—period,” Daniels said.

Take the case of a Sanpete mother whose 15-year-old female daughter was sexually abused over a number of years by a trusted extended family member.

The perpetrator gave her a lot of gifts, which is a tactic of grooming, the mother said. “We thought it just a doting family member,” she said. “But the perpetrator had more sinister plans. We were blindsided; it was shocking.”

The mother has “zero complaints” about the way the Sanpete County system worked to help prosecute the perpetrator, who is now serving up to 30 years in prison, and restore a semblance of normalcy to the victim’s life.

Nevertheless, the mother said, the abused girl will need therapy for the rest of her life—as she battles PTSD, nightmares, panic attacks and trigger events that leave her incapacitated.

The mother said the experience with CJC had been lifesaving. “We went there for a forensic interview, and my child felt very comfortable and safe. She was welcomed with smiling faces.”

They CJC went out of its way to alleviate the trauma associated with re-telling the event, she said.

“The CJC did a wonderful job,” the mother said. “The atmosphere was great. They treated my child with respect and graciousness, and that was extremely important to me as a parent.”

The mother reported the abuse after suspecting that something wrong with her daughter; she had an intuition that she needed to check all the messages on her daughter’s phone, even those from contacts she trusted innately.

She checked the phone and made an alarming discovering about the trusted relative. She then contacted the police.

The very next point of contact was the CJC. That helped ease the tension, the mother said.

The perpetrator was arrested and spent time in the Sanpete County Jail awaiting trial. Eventually, the suspect entered a plea negotiation with the county attorney. He was convicted of a felony and is now incarcerated at the Gunnison Prison.

“Kevin [the county attorney] was always great to explain the process to me; he showed the utmost respect to my daughter, which I really appreciated.” she said.

The victim started counseling the week it was determined a crime had been committed. She attended weekly therapy sessions for over two years, but she has moved on to less intensive therapy.

“She has struggled everyday with effects of what happened to her,” the mother said. “It’s been very, very, very difficult,” not just for the daughter but for the whole extended family.

“We used to be a very close and enmeshed family, and what he [the perpetrator] did has literally ripped apart our extended family relationship. It’s just gone.”

But the daughter is working through it, he mother said, “and the support she’s had from day one, with the county and us as parents, has made the biggest difference.”

CJC has been fantastic to step up and help with counseling, the mother said. “I am in awe of how wonderfully they have taken care of us,” she said. “This includes everyone involved.”

The mother also gives a lot of credit to two other support groups. She said the group Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA) provided comfort and reassurance to her family and her daughter. And the mother has personally found solace in the website, Mothers of Sexually Abused Children.

When prosecuting child abuse cases, Daniels has adopted the philosophy of a certain religious figurehead—Jesus Christ—that “it’s better that a millstone be hanged about their necks than to harm a child.”

Daniels said he takes child abuse very seriously.

For example, the two convicted men from the Knights of the Crystal Blade are doing multiple life sentences, he said, referring to Samuel Shaffer and John Coltharp, the leaders of a fundamentalist Mormon offshoot who took each other’s daughters as brides.

“They will never get out,” Daniels said. “I will contact the parole board every time they come up to make sure they never get out.”

In every single child abuse case, Daniels said he will draw a line in the sand. He will look at the nature of the crime, as some abuse is more egregious than others, and then he will talk to families and based on all those factors, he will determine what justice is. He will make an offer to the perpetrators, and they can take it or go to trial, he said.

In some child abuse cases, the abused are fortunate to have a loving and supportive mother or extended family, but there is usually a big void that needs to be filled from the community, Daniels said.

“One great thing about Sanpete is we do have a really supportive community and people are really willing to step up through whatever social structures that exist,” he said. “Sanpete does an exceptional job.”

Fighting child abuse is a team effort between law enforcement, judicial system, CJC, social services, therapists and the rest of the community.

The tragedy of child abuse is that it wrecks homes and wrecks family structures, Daniels said.

“I tell victims it’s often one chapter in their story,” he said. “It’s not the end of the book. And part of their ongoing story is going to be therapy.”

Most abuse is about the psychology of control, he said. To steal a line from Judge Marvin Bagley, “The best thing you can do as revenge to a perpetrator is to go live your life.”  Show the perpetrator they don’t have control.

There are several child abuse cases slowly working their way through the court system right now. Most of these malingering cases are due to COVID, because jury trials have been postponed during the pandemic, Daniels said.

The County Attorney’s office has also hired a victim’s advocate named Stephanie Sorenson, who has being doing a phenomenal job, Daniels said. “I wish I could clone five of her.” The county is in the process of renewing her grant for another two years.