HILO — Sexual exploitation of children is a prominent topic in the media, with the sentencing this past week of pederast and former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky to at least 30 years in prison, and the arrest by federal agents of child sex abuse and pornography suspect John Tucker of Puna.
Media coverage generally focuses on perpetrators and suspects. Child sex abuse is a taboo subject; victims’ identities are almost always shielded and victims rarely speak publicly. Many, if they report or disclose the abuse at all, don’t do so until they are adults.
“Most people don’t reveal it until they’re 30, 40 or 50 years old,” said Samantha E. Payne of Puna, a retired clinical psychologist who counseled child sex assault victims in Nevada, and who recently published “The Sexual Abuse Victim’s Guide to Recovery,” a book co-written with her late husband, Dan. “I had a woman in my practice who didn’t reveal it until she was 78. It’s because it’s not safe, because they don’t know they can. They don’t believe they’ll be believed. Some of them don’t even understand how it has affected them. It can be for any number of reasons, but usually it’s fear.”
In Sandusky’s case, he hand-picked his victims through his organization for troubled boys.
“He had it tailor-made,” Payne said. “He didn’t have to search for kids who were neglected or who weren’t loved or who didn’t have dads. He had an organization that just delivered them to him. He really groomed the children. A lot of pedophiles will groom the children until they’re that age that they’re attracted to them. They know they’ll reach that age. So they start several years early to groom that child for sex. And when that happens, when you take a broken child or a child that has been neglected, if the child is given something by the perpetrator, it’s really hard for the child to let go of that, because it’s what he or she has longed for all his life.”
Payne said that a seemingly avuncular groomer, such as Sandusky, is just one type of pedophile. Some use intimidation or coercion to get their way and force a child’s silence. Those methods include telling a victim they won’t be believed if they say something — or if the perpetrator is a family member, perhaps by telling the child that the adult, and maybe even the victim, will be jailed. The difficulty for a victim in coming forward is compounded when the perpetrator is an adult authority figure, a trusted family friend or a family member.
Police Lt. Lucille Melemai, who heads the Hilo Juvenile Aid Section, and the detectives under her command deal with that reluctance in the course of their work.
“All we want to do is to help people. We want them to know it’s OK to report it,” she said. Melemai added that it’s important for victims and their families to understand that police officers have their best interests at heart.
“We want prosecution of the offender, but we also want help for those who are victimized so they can heal and know that they can move forward from what happened to them,” she said.
The statute of limitations for prosecution of continuous sex assault or first-degree sex assault in Hawaii is six years after the occurrence of the alleged offense; prosecution for all other alleged felony sex assault must occur within three years of the alleged offense.
“I don’t think there should be a statute of limitations on that, at all, because it is so difficult for people to come forward with that information,” Payne opined.
Usually, when reporting, the victim and a parent or guardian speak first with uniformed patrol officers.
“At first, we try to just get them to articulate, getting a very brief statement from them, versus a formal interview with the detective in street clothes,” Melemai said.
The formal interview comes later, usually at the Children’s Justice Center, a place that Irene Bender, a victim assistance counselor in the county prosecutor’s office, describes as “a safe place where we try to not to re-victimize them.” The Hilo center, in a location not disclosed to the general public, is purposefully child-friendly, unlike police interrogation rooms or the prosecutor’s office.
“There’s a one-way mirror and behind that, there’s a camera. The kids know it’s there; they’re shown that it’s there. They’re filmed and they know what’s happening. There’s one room for adolescents and another room for small children,” Bender said.
Bender said interviews are conducted by a detective or a trained therapist.
“The interviews are very specific,” she said. “They require a certain training because they’re legal. They’re evidence. They have to ask certain questions, such as the difference between the truth and a lie, and what happens if you tell a lie, parts of the body, things like that. So they don’t just say, ‘Tell us what happened to you.’”
Should a case go to trial, Bender and her colleagues also do courtroom orientations to reduce the anxiety for victims and their parents, as well as to familiarize them with the process.
“A lot of people think that it’s really difficult testifying in a trial for a kid, and it is — but it can also be empowering to state the truth,” she said. “And then, if the jury convicts, that’s really empowering.”
And if they don’t?
“That’s pretty tough. We try to prepare them for either outcome.”
“Children are amazing resilient,” Bender said. “Oftentimes, it’s harder for the parent than it is for the child, although it’s very difficult for the child. The child has to deal with all the repercussions in the family, whether the offender is an uncle or a stranger or coach or whoever that might be. What I see is amazing healing and amazing resilience in these kids, but it does leave a scar.”