Salt Lake County has seen a significant upswing in the number of reported child sexual abuse cases, but more and more perpetrators are feeling the sting of legal prosecution.
Leslie Ann Lewis of the Salt Lake County attorney's office said reported child sexual abuse cases have increased 300-plus percent in the past five years in Salt Lake County alone. (Statewide, they increased 343 percent during that same period.)"But Salt Lake County has prosecuted more sexual abuse cases than any other county I am aware of. We are doing more - and we are doing them effectively with an 85 percent conviction rate among the cases filed," said Lewis, trial team leader of the county's Special Victims Prosecution Unit. "That's extremely high, especially considering that it's child victims who are testifying."
Sixty percent of the team's time is now spent doing sexual abuse cases. Lewis said those cases take more time and are more difficult to prosecute than any other type of case except homicide.
"One of the problems is that during the case's pendency, sometimes the attitudes of the victims and their parents change," said Salt Lake County Attorney David Yocom. "In a murder case, you have a murder weapon, a crime scene, a suspect and physical evidence that stays the same. Witness statements don't change; it's rather a consistent thing."
But Yocom said a child sexual abuse case can change from day to day.
"You can't carve into steel and say `this is my case' because you never know what you are going to end up with," he said.
It's for this reason the Salt Lake County attorney's office became one of the first in the country to allocate resources to prosecuting crimes involving certain classes of victims, including children.
The county is one of the first to have a counseling unit for victims, to assist them through the criminal justice process. "I think parents can trust us with their children and know that we are going to do what we can to take part of the fear out of this aspect of the justice system, and to minimize trauma for victims during the course of the trial," Lewis said. "By explaining and preparing them for court, it helps dispel the fear of the unknown.
" We don't want people to fail to report these crimes because they are fearful of what is going to happen to their children at the hands of the justice system," she said. "We want them to know that we will do everything we can to minimize the trauma, to assist and work with them - and protect them."
Salt Lake County is also one of the first to develop a child abuse screening criteria list, a three-page list of guidelines that establish that is required before a case can be filed. Adherence to the guidelines, Lewis said, increases the likelihood of conviction.
"We file only those cases that have been thoroughly and completely investigated to be fair to the people accused of the crime and also to the victims," said Lewis. She also attributes their success to teamwork. Prosecutors work closely with physicians, mental health experts and other professionals to effectively prosecute these difficult cases.
"It is not enough in our opinion merely to have a child make an allegation that something has happened. Based on painful experiences, we feel we need more than that," Lewis said. "We do victims no favor if we file these cases where there is no reasonable likelihood of conviction.
"There is nothing more devastating than having a child go through the experience of testifying, the rigors of direct examination and cross-examination with a jury of strangers listening, only to have the defendant acquitted," she said. "Then the child is in a greater position of peril than before; his life worsened by the criminal process."
Because of this, and because of children's reluctance to testify against a family member, some cases of child sexual abuse in Utah go unprosecuted. No one knows how many.
A so-called child sexual abuse ring, under investigation for the last 16 months in Salt Lake County, may never get to court because only one of the four children have agreed to testify in court. The children's three therapists and investigators have therefore recommended the family not prosecute.
"If you have children who cannot or will not testify, obviously you have a difficulty prosecuting," Lewis said. "One of the reasons why child abuse prosecution historically has been so difficult is because we are dealing with a population of victims who are very young and very vulnerable."
It's those very young and vulnerable children, however, who are reporting crimes against them.
"The increase in reporting is directly related to the education we are providing to young children through the school system," Yocom said. Such curricula as the "Touch Program," and "I'm In Charge," he said, are telling youngsters to be assertive in protecting their rights and to report any attempted abuse.
Yocom also applauded the Legislature for enacting some of the nation's toughest child sexual abuse laws.
"You often hear the phrase `cruel and unusual punishment.' The expression is generally applied to the defendants," said Lewis. "But I always think of those words in terms of children, in that the system, which is not designed for children, sometimes cruelly and unusually punishes the child victim for reporting and testifying.
"I think the Legislature has enacted laws that make it easier for child victims, while protecting the defendants' constitutional rights (i.e. videotaping and use of hearsay in child sexual abuse cases)," she said. "But we still have a long way to go."