Prosecutors, law enforcement turn to Louisville nonprofit
By Elizabeth DePompei
News and Tribune
NEW ALBANY — Floyd County Prosecutor Keith Henderson still remembers the 14-year-old girl who turned to authorities in hopes of making sure her younger sister would avoid the sexual abuse she had endured for years.
After telling a school counselor that her mom’s boyfriend had repeatedly sexually abused her in her own home, the girl would go on to recount her traumatic story to police, the Department of Child Services, her own family and eventually Henderson himself.
Henderson told the story to a room full of local leaders and service providers at a “Building Brighter Futures Breakfast” hosted by Family and Children’s Place in New Albany on Wednesday morning.
Henderson said the mother’s boyfriend called the child a liar and her mother didn’t believe her accusations. After charges were filed, the girl’s mom married the boyfriend. The girl — who Henderson called Sally — later testified in court, only to have a jury declare her alleged abuser not guilty.
“So then the 14-year-old says to me in a very mature moment afterwards … she said, well what good does it do to tell my story and go through this if he’s going to [be able to] continue to do this?” Henderson said.
Henderson said Sally’s case made his office take a step back and re-evaluate how it could do things differently in child abuse cases. The answer was to team up with Family and Children’s Place, a Louisville-based nonprofit that provides counseling to children and families who have been victims of abuse or neglect.
Beyond counseling, the organization serves law enforcement and prosecutors by conducting independent forensic interviews and forensic medical exams for child victims of abuse.
That means instead of a child having to go through the trauma of repeatedly telling his or her story to authorities, the child can give one statement to a trained interviewer for all parties to use. Family and Children’s Place now has child advocacy centers in New Albany and Jeffersonville, and Henderson said those services make all the difference.
Floyd County Sheriff Frank Loop agreed. Loop said his department has worked closely with Family and Children’s Place for about five years. Typically, investigating officers will watch the forensic interview behind a two-way mirror in another room or get a copy of the recorded interview.
“We let those experts interview the child and we still get our information that we need to be able to take it to the prosecutor,” Loop said. “We’re experts in the criminal aspect of the case but we don’t have the ability a lot of the time to deal with the emotional trauma, the physical trauma that the kids have had. So it’s better to let those professionals deal with that.”
Loop said working with trained, independent experts also produces more accurate information.
Henderson said there were around 320 child abuse cases in Clark and Floyd counties last year. In Louisville and Southern Indiana, Family and Children’s Place served 5,000 children and families in the same year. President and CEO Pam Darnall said if the organization had twice the resources it has, it could serve twice that many children and families every year.
“It’s always resources,” Darnall said. “And a lot of our law enforcement are really struggling as well with their own resources. I was just speaking with someone who has one detective … so they really value having an organization that provides these critical forensic interviews, medical examinations and mental health services.”
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said he attended the breakfast to show support for services like Family and Children’s Place. Zoeller said the state needs to provide more attention and more support — particularly financial support — for communities to better serve their children in need.
Not doing so could mean serious consequences for a lifetime.
“… What we see is children who are abused at home, they usually run away,” Zoeller said. “And that’s when we see the trafficking. Human trafficking really starts with a child victim who runs away and has no support network. … So again, these are all connected, but it all deals with this sexualization process of children that I think we really need to address in a more serious way.”
Darnall said she too sees child abuse and neglect connected to other crime or circumstances. Many of the families they help, she said, are struggling with poverty and homelessness. Those circumstances can lead to drug abuse which in turn can lead to more crime, including child abuse and neglect. What can be particularly challenging, Darnall added, is when abuse or neglect becomes a generational problem.
It’s the kind of cycle 14-year-old Sally was trying to break for the sake of her younger sister. Henderson said that now, roughly 10 years after Sally’s alleged abuser was found not guilty, his office and the Southern Indiana community are more prepared to advocate for abused and neglected children, thanks to Family and Children’s Place.
“At the end of the day it’s a good partnership, a good collaboration. It’s something that needs to continue to go and continue to grow,” Henderson said. “I want you to understand that this is a real problem that we deal with and have dealt with. The good news is we’re dealing with it better.”