Child-abuse stories deserving of the word 'heinous'

Offenders' tactics similar in early reporting of cases

Published: Saturday, April 19 2008 12:49 a.m. MDT

Heinous. It's a word reporters use sparingly and for the most outrageous crimes, usually those involving children, because it pricks the senses. And we're glad to have it as a tool.

Just 25 out of the nearly 8,000 stories written in the Deseret News so far this year use the word heinous.

You see it in recent stories about the sexual assault and slaying of 7-year-old Hser Ner Moo, a South Salt Lake girl who came to Utah with her family from a Thai refugee camp seven months ago.

Esar Met, a 21-year-old immigrant from Myanmar, is charged with the crime.

Hser Ner Moo's slaying and its coincidence with Child Abuse Prevention Month is a grim reminder about the worst humanity has to offer.

The special designation for April not only reminds Utahns of all things heinous, but those that could be considered dastardly, depraved, infamous, loathsome, nauseating and perverse — words that aren't still heavily used in that context.

It wasn't always that way. Around the turn of the 20th century, journalists wrote with a certain flair, and research of their work shows not only some words reporters could bring back into usage, but that Utah has always had a problem with child abuse.

Take this, a story from the June 11, 1911, Box Elder News:

"This city was stirred to its very center last Saturday evening by a report that a fiend had been at work in the community and had attempted to carry out his devilish purpose."

The story details how a man assaulted an 8-year-old girl after coaxing her into his buggy and made his "dastardly attempt" in fields west of town.

The incident emboldened other girls to speak up to report that they, too, had been assaulted.

The stories go on, says Doug Miller, director of the Davis County Children's Justice Center, which assists law enforcement with more than 400 child abuse investigations in Davis County each year.

Miller conducted research through digital newspaper archives, which can be found online at www.lib.utah.edu/digital/unews.

Miller found 2,800 cases of child abuse reported in Utah newspapers between 1870 and 1910, meaning to him that many more cases were never reported in the news or otherwise.

He also saw that some of the tactics haven't changed in more than 130 years.

Men tried to lure children away with promises of gifts. Back then, though, they employed promises of rabbits or silk underwear or dresses. They married women to get access to their children and abused their own children.

From that time, it took more than 100 years for the Utah Legislature to designate sexual abuse of a child as a crime in 1983.

Before that, crimes were prosecuted under rape, incest or sexual abuse.

Children were often forced to recount their stories in front of the person they accused of abuse, which can be especially trying for a child when a parent is accused, Miller said.

Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings says he's grateful for the Children's Justice Center, which provides a non-intimidating setting for experienced detectives to interview children who claim abuse.

"It helps us to weed and ferret out the good cases from the bad cases from the very beginning," Rawlings said, because if you're going to prosecute someone for child abuse in any form, "you need to have your ducks in a row."

Miller says child sexual abuse is constant across time.

"Offenders in any era will look for ways to offend within the constructs of their social milieu," he says.

That means parents need to continue teaching their children about stranger danger, because the efforts are effective.

"We've stopped some of this," he says. "We hope to stop more."

For children such as Hser Ner Moo, it's too late. Met, the man charged with killing her, will be in court for his next hearing Monday.

Of course, the court assumes he is innocent until guilt is proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

And the prosecutors continue to pursue charges against those who commit heinous, dastardly and loathsome crimes.

Because, to borrow a phrase from colleagues a century ago, "that a fiend has been abroad is very evident."


E-mail: jdougherty@desnews.com

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