SIOUX FALLS, SD -
As the staff of Child's Voice in Sioux Falls showed us an exam room, they reminded us the children who come in here quickly add up.
"Just when I think I've heard everything, I hear something different," forensic interviewer Colleen Brazil said.
Child abuse cases in southeastern South Dakota and nearby parts of Minnesota and Iowa have increased by 10 percent each year for the last six years. Last year, Child's Voice saw 2,050 abused children come through the doors, and this year it is keeping with the trend.
"There are days we hear terrible horrific things from children. You think that's something a child shouldn't have known or have experienced," Brazil said.
Brazil plays an important role in helping young victims overcome the abuse. As a forensic interviewer, she is trained to ask questions specific to a child's age and in a way that will get the most accurate information to find out what type of abuse is going on. Coupled with a medical exam, officials only do this once to make the process as easy as possible for the boy or girl. They record it and keep it on file so a child is not asked the same questions over and over and over again. Brazil has found most cases are not just one type of abuse.
"It's a society problem. The thing we have to remember is the children we see today are the grownups tomorrow. The way we are parented, the way our childhood affects us in turn then affects our parenting and our way of dealing with children in the future," Brazil said.
Sanford Pediatrician Dr. Nancy Free makes a simple, yet very profound observation.
"Child abuse is an adult problem," Free said.
Some KELOLAND criminal cases give us a small glimpse at this big problem. A judge sentenced 21-year-old Taylor Cournoyer to 13 years in prison on drug charges after two-year-old RieLee Lovell's body was found in a closet at his Wagner home in July. In December, police arrested 24-year-old Manegabe Ally. Ally faces murder charges and is accused of beating his girlfriend's 18-month-old son to death. In February, police found a meth lab in 37-year-old Heather Schmidt's house. Officers said her 15-year-old daughter helped them find it after she told a school resource officer her mother strangled her until she blacked out. Nationally, the country has been captivated by the sexual abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky.
In 2011, following a two-year grand jury investigation, Sandusky was arrested and charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period. He met his molestation victims through his charity, The Second Mile. Several of them testified against Sandusky in his sexual abuse trial. Four of the charges were subsequently dropped. On June 22, 2012, Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of the 48 remaining charges. Sandusky was sentenced on October 9, 2012 to 30 to 60 years in prison
"You go home and hug your own first and then you think, 'What caused this to happen?'" Free said.
Free said a number of factors act as triggers. The economy, financial stress and over-sexualized media all play a part in the year-to-year gains in child abuse cases. Sioux Falls' own growth has also contributed. She says awareness has helped and she has noticed that more cases get reported.
"Prior victims of sexual abuse will come in and say, 'I never ever wanted this to happen to my child.' As a society, we're recognizing we need to give better help to victims to help stop the cycle," Free said.
That is where Emily Cummins comes in. The Family Advocate works with victims and their parents long after the initial exam. She helps them find counseling and follows up with them for as long as she needs to.
"It's baby steps after that and it's picking up the pieces and figuring out what to do next, but with that support and love, both child and parent can really do well," Cummins said.
Keeping every boy and girl safe from abuse is a challenge, but officials say there is hope. Above all, when a case comes to Child's Voice, the most important thing is they are not treated like numbers; instead, they are treated like children.
"When talking with the child and you can see that child making the decision in their head. 'Should I tell? Should I not tell?' When they can tell and they're believed and supported, to be able to see that child after the interview, you can see the weight lifted off their shoulders," Brazil said.
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