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‘It never ends’ — Cases of sexual assault against children pile up
Incidents are on the increase and difficult to prove
0910 ASSAULT
Investigator Stephen Johnson, left, of the Gainesville Police Department, meets with Heather Hayes, executive director of the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children and Lt. Dan Franklin of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. - photo by Norm Cannada
Sexual assault reports

Cases reported to Gainesville Police involving victims 16 and younger

  • 2012: 40
  • 2013: 28
  • 2014: 24
  • 2015: 18
  • 2016: 30
  • 2017 (through June): 17

Cases reported to Hall County Sheriff’s Office involving victims younger than 16

  • 2012: 115
  • 2013: 82
  • 2014: 75
  • 2015: 100
  • 2016: 80
  • 2017 (through June): 62

Physical and sexual abuse

Cases handled by the Edmondson-Telford Child Advocacy Center, which overlaps with those reported to the police and sheriff’s office

  • 2012: 214
  • 2013: 165
  • 2014: 192
  • 2015: 229
  • 2016: 202
  • 2017 (through June): 117

Reports of sexual assaults against children and younger teens were running at a higher pace than recent years through the first six months of 2017, but local officials said the incidents have been keeping them busy for years.

“To us, no matter the numbers, the flow is usually constant and consistent,” said Lt. Dan Franklin, supervisor of investigations for the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. “We are always working these kinds of cases. For us, it never ends.”

There were 62 reports of sexual assault with victims younger than 16 from January through June this year, according to information The Times obtained through an open records request with the Sheriff’s Office. The six month total was only 18 fewer than the total number of cases in 2016 and on pace to be the highest since 2012.

There were 17 sexual assault cases involving victims ages 16 and younger reported to the Gainesville Police in the first six months of 2017, according to a similar open request. That figure was on pace to be more than any year since 2013.

“If there is an uptick this year, maybe it is that more people are reporting it,” Franklin said. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing because that gives us more opportunities to solve these things and get them stopped.”

Investigator Stephen Johnson of the Gainesville Police Department, who has worked with the department on these cases for more than five years, said the reports continue to pile up.

“It’s definitely been a busy few years for us,” Johnson said.

The Edmondson-Telford Child Advocacy Center in Gainesville handles forensic interviews and medical exams of children for whom there is a report of sexual assault. Heather Hayes, executive director for the center, said she has noticed an increase in the number of children they have served so far this year.

So far this year, the center has served 177 children ages 16 and younger who reported physical or sexual abuse, according to Sandra Reed, administrative assistant at the center. Numbers are on pace to top the number of kids served each year since 2012.

“We have seen an increase from January to right now,” Hayes said. “You never know if that trend is going to continue or not. It’s something that’s gotten our attention.”

Hayes said the center serves as “evidence collectors” in these cases.

“The forensic interview is really the verbal evidence collection,” she said. “It’s really talking to the child about the testimony — what happened, what the disclosure is, who touched them where, how many times and in what manner.”

A nurse practitioner with certification in forensic medicine, Hayes said she often conducts the medical exams while psychologists handle interviews with the victims. She said the children and teens are usually brought in by law enforcement or a representative from the Division of Family and Children Services once an allegation is reported.

“When a child discloses abuse, they really need to come to a place that is designed for just them, a child-friendly place that has playrooms and child-oriented materials for them to interact with as opposed to them being taken to the DFCS office or the jail or the sheriff’s office or the courthouse,” she said.

“Instead of them going around to all those professionals and telling them over and over and over what happened, the idea is they come to us and they sit in a safe, child-friendly environment and they talk to that forensic interviewer one time and they capture all of the details of information that all the professionals do need. But the child shares that story one time and moves on and goes into counseling or to rebuild their lives. That’s just a less traumatic process for the child. The thought being every time you tell your story, you relive a portion of it.”

Long-term effects from such abuse are often traumatic for victims, Hayes said.

“Being a victim of child abuse in general, whether it’s severe physical or sexual, can have very profound lifelong effects on children,” she said. “A lot of it depends on the type of abuse, of course, and the type of services they receive or don’t receive. You often see alcoholism, drug use, high-risk sexual behavior, depression and suicide.”

Johnson and Franklin said the assistance provided by the center is valuable in helping proceed with cases.

“They’re part of our team,” Johnson said. “They are a tremendous support for what we do. When you’re dealing with children, that’s a very specialized type of interview. I, myself, won’t interview a child without going through one of our interviewers at the Edmondson-Telford Center.”

Information provided by the Sheriff’s Office also showed that only about 26 percent of the more than 500 cases reported since 2012 resulted in arrests.

“In the state of Georgia, the charge child molestation, all you need is the believable word of a child, that’s all it takes,” Franklin said. “We try to get to much more. But these are very private incidents and rarely is there any kind of good, solid physical evidence. Depending on the extent of the abuse, in the worst cases, we might have some physical evidence that they get from an exam that’s helpful ”

Hayes called sexual assaults against minors and child molestations “a tough crime to prosecute.”

“With child molestation cases or child abuse of any kind, you’re talking about an allegation by a minor child, which is for some adults very difficult to believe, especially when an adult life or career might be on the line,” she said. “It’s usually a crime without witnesses, without physical evidence. Medical exams, about 90 percent of them, never have findings of physical injuries. You are just sort are left without a whole lot of corroborating evidence and an allegation that’s not witnessed.”

Franklin said officials work together to try to help close more cases with arrests through monthly meetings of a multidisciplinary group that includes law enforcement agencies, the prosecutor’s office, DFCS, Edmondson-Telford and others.

“All agencies involved come and meet and we discuss the cases in detail and together, collectively, we make a decision on is there something else we can do before we cut ties with the case and just close it out,” Franklin said. “That puts a bunch of different sets of eyes on it. It gives us an opportunity to get ideas from other law enforcement agencies.

“If there is something that is generated from that meeting that we can do before we close it, it’s called restaffing that case,” he added. “And we’ll go ahead get those steps taken and then at the next meeting, we’ll brief again on that case and we’ll either have made an arrest or we’ve struck out on whatever we were looking to try to do. That’s every single case — including the arrests — every one that’s reported.”

Johnson said most perpetrators in sexual assaults on children “are people who are closely related to the children. They have easy access to the children.”

Johnson added he sees his role in law enforcement as being the voice of victims.

“I look at the horrors that children have gone through: somebody has to be their voice,” he said. “The way I look at it is the victims that I serve oftentimes cannot speak for themselves. Somebody has to be able to speak for them.”

“Instead of them going around to all those professionals and telling them over and over and over what happened, the idea is they come to us and they sit in a safe, child-friendly environment and they talk to that forensic interviewer one time and they capture all of the details of information that all the professionals do need. But the child shares that story one time and moves on and goes into counseling or to rebuild their lives. That’s just a less traumatic process for the child. The thought being every time you tell your story, you relive a portion of it.”
Heather Hayes, executive director of The Edmondson-Telford Child Advocacy Center in Gainesville
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