Getting the person accused of molesting a child into a courtroom on criminal charges can be one of the most difficult challenges an investigator faces.
"You have to deal with the inherent difficulty it's a child's word against an adult's word," explained Assistant Washington County Prosecutor Kevin Rings.
Knowing that proving a case based on the word of a young child is difficult, law enforcement and Children Services investigators are then placed into the tough position of finding the evidence needed to convict an offender.
KEVIN PIERSON Special to the Times
Marietta Police Patrolman Dianna Hively is one of several local officers who works on child sex abuse cases.
And with that, comes the knowledge that no one really wants to have to put a child on the stand to testify in open court about what happened to them.
To that end, the questioning of a suspect accused of molesting a child is one of the most crucial parts of the investigation.
"Interview and interrogation is a very important aspect of our job," said Marietta Police Patrolman Dianna Hively.
At a glance
How investigators handle reports of sexual abuse of a child
- Once a report is received, an interview is set up with a member of Children's Services and law enforcement.
- After the initial interview with the victim, additional interviews are conducted with potential witnesses.
- The suspect will be interviewed by police.
- If a report is substantiated, evidence will be forwarded to the Washington County Prosecutor's office for possible indictment by the grand jury.
Source: Marietta Police Department.
Getting a confession is the goal of the interview, and without it prosecuting the offender can become a hit or miss proposition.
Controlled phone calls can also be used to help an investigation and help develop the admission of guilt.
"You want that confession, and as an investigator you will do everything within the law to get that confession," said Washington County Sheriff's Maj. Brian Schuck.
Reports of the sexual abuse of a child usually come to investigators in one of three ways. A report may be made directly to police, to Children Services who informs police, or a tip is left anonymously, Hively explained.
Of all sexual abuse against children, only about 30 percent of it is reported to authorities, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
No matter how a report is received, Children Services will become involved in the earliest stages of the investigation as interviews with the victim will be conducted at their location rather than the police station.
That allows for the victim to be more comfortable in their surroundings, and keeps them from having to talk about the issue multiple times, police explained.
An inquiry into the sexual abuse of a child doesn't start with investigators, however.
It starts with parents, who are typically one of the first people told of the abuse if the offender is not one of the child's guardians, Rings said. Once a child begins to make statements of possible abuse, the parents have to listen with an open mind, and then report it to police.
"The worst thing a parent can do when they hear about this is become hysterical. The kid will shut down," Rings said. "Kids pick up those triggers, and they don't want to upset people."
Parents are not the only ones who must struggle to remain calm when a child claims sexual abuse.
It's also a test of an investigator, who has to remain calm and neutral throughout the entire case, no matter how much it bothers them, police said.
"Not everyone's cut out to do those type of crimes," Schuck said. "The satisfaction comes when you get the confession and you're able to put them away for a long time."
Along with the calm demeanor, investigators also have a responsibility to provide for the interest and well-being of the child from the initial point of discovery.
Depending on who the alleged perpetrator is, that can lead to possibly taking the child from the home.
Sometimes there may not be enough evidence for criminal proceedings, but the child can still be protected through Children Services, Hively noted.
Hively recalled a case where police believed a young girl was victimized by a family member in the home, but there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute. Instead, the child was taken from the home by Children Services and placed in foster care.
"The important thing is the child's safety. That's the No. 1 thing," Hively said.
Once an investigation is complete and evidence is gathered, it is submitted to the Washington County Prosecutor's office.
At times, a case can still be difficult to prosecute even with an inordinate amount of evidence, as the victim and the family must be taken into account.
Rings said it is very important for the mother of the victim to be on board with the prosecution, which isn't always the case as sometimes the provider for the home is the perpetrator of the offense.
"You can have an overwhelming amount of evidence and they still don't want to believe it," Schuck said.
Even families that cooperate fully with the investigation typically do not want to place a young child victim on the witness stand.
That leads to a great many plea bargains in sexual assault cases, as prosecutors and investigators work to have an inordinate amount of evidence to result in strong charges against the alleged perpetrator.
"You have to do whatever you can to take those guys off the street for as long as you can," Rings said.
And no matter what the charge is, Rings said he is confident in being able to make a plea bargain because Washington County Common Pleas Judges Susan Boyer and Ed Lane will not give light sentences to someone accused of molesting a child, he said.
"That's not going to happen in Washington County," Rings said.
After conviction, during sentencing those who have committed a sex offense are required to register their address as a sex offender.
All registered sex offenders in Washington County are listed on the sheriff's office website, www.washingtoncountysheriff.org.
The sheriff's office will send mailings and emails to area residences notifying them when a sex offender moves into the neighborhood.