By Caitlin VanOverberghe, Greenfield Daily Reporter
The story made national headlines.
A 7-year-old boy told his mother that a man sexually abused him in a Greenfield Walmart restroom. The suspect? A convicted child molester.
Word of an arrest in the case this month lit up social media and prompted phone calls from national news networks seeking comments from local police.
The incident also sparked a broader conversation among concerned parents and residents, who wondered what is being done to keep their children safe.
Statistics show that 45 percent of sexual assault victims in the United States are children younger than 12, the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department reports; and it’s estimated that, nationally, about 80 percent of addresses have at least one registered sex offender within a mile radius.
Currently, there are 54 registered sex offenders living in Hancock County and being monitored regularly. Fourteen more are incarcerated, either in the Indiana Department of Correction or the Hancock County Jail. Eight others work in Hancock County but live elsewhere.
Sex crimes involving strangers are not so common in Hancock County that parents should begin fearing for their children’s immediate safety, Sheriff Mike Shepherd said.
“But obviously, you can’t be too cautious when it comes to your kids,” he said.
About 75 percent of all sexual assault and child molestation victims know their attacker, rather than being harmed by a stranger. The biggest problem with sex crimes is they usually go unreported, Shepherd said, making it hard for law enforcement to predict how often assaults take place.
“The issue is that these things happen (more than once) before it’s reported,” Shepherd said.
Gender, race and socioeconomic status are not factors in determining whether someone will harm a child, according to the Child Molestation Research and Prevention Institute.
What makes the vast majority of child molesters different from the general population is they are sexually attracted to children rather than people their own age, the institute reports.
The organization classifies this trait as a disorder called pedophilia, and those who suffer from it are called pedophiles.
The institute, a national nonprofit research organization, has found that if pedophilia is discovered before a crime is committed, it can be treated with medication and specific types of therapy.
If the disorder goes untreated, the pedophile could turn to an array of crimes, often harming children and damaging the child’s physical and emotional health.
All parents hope their children will turn to them immediately in times of fear or uncertainty, but sometimes that fear is so great, the child keeps what has happened to them bottled up, experts say.
Parents and guardians likely will notice a change in children’s behavior if something has happened to them, said crime prevention specialist Kevin Minnick, who works in the Hancock County Probation Department.
“You’ll start to notice behavior anomalies,” he said. “Emotions that weren’t there before will start to appear, or, if they were there, they will be exaggerated.”
An outgoing child might start to become more reserved; one who is prone to mild fits of anger will turn to severe tantrums; and one who usually is affectionate no longer wants to be touched, Minnick cited as examples.
“If you’re paying attention, you’re going to notice a change,” he said.
If it becomes apparent the child was victimized, the crime should be reported immediately to local law enforcement and the Department of Child Services, Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton said.
Like all crime, the sooner the incident is reported, the better, but assault cases carry special challenges made worse by the passage of time. They also have a statute of limitations; child molesting cases must be prosecuted before the victim turns 31, Eaton said.
In other words, if a child carries a secret of sexual assault into adulthood, there’s a chance the legal system won’t be able to help them.
Even when sex crimes are reported immediately, they can present challenges for prosecutors.
A victim’s testimony is always helpful in building a case against a criminal. But, because of the distressing nature of sex crimes, Eaton said, some victims are understandably hesitant about appearing in court. His staff is cautious in these instances when asking victims to relive what happened to them.
“There are emotional costs to people done by these defendants,” he said.
Whether a victim is able to testify in court or not, they and their family members are regularly told about the progress of a case and consulted on proceedings. They are also referred to professionals who can ease the trauma.
Victim advocate Katie Molinder said she steps in to contact the family as quickly as possible, working to put them in touch with therapists or other service providers in the area.
But some families are resistant to accepting help.
“It depends on the family and what they feel comfortable with,” she said. “This is a traumatic situation for the whole family.”
Minnick said he believes getting a child help quickly helps the child cope with the emotional scarring an assault can leave behind.
“If someone is molested as a child, and there is no report, no treatment, it affects the kid. They often feel dirty and have low self-esteem,” he said. “Girls may enter a series of sexual relationships, looking for someone to make them feel good enough. Boys get angry and controlling. And it’s all because of this issue that was never taken seriously and never treated.”
Registry not foolproof
There are more than a dozen crimes, including rape, child molestation, human-trafficking and kidnapping, that can land an offender on the Indiana Sex and Violent Offender Registry. The registry, which includes an offender’s address, photo and conviction, is broken down by county.
Hancock County Sheriff’s Sgt. Karen Robinson takes the lead in monitoring the registry for local law enforcement.
While the registry is a valuable resource, it’s not foolproof, she said. There are many variables taken into account when someone is added, how often their information is updated and how long they remain on the registry.
“You cannot watch these offenders 24/7,” Robinson said. “You can monitor them as closely as the law allows you to do so. We rely on tips from the public, other law enforcement agencies and monitoring to make sure these offenders are complying with the laws of the registry.”
Registered sex offenders are required by law to inform local law enforcement when they begin living, working or going to school in the county, Shepherd said. They are then required to update their information regularly depending on the terms of their conviction.
Not all convictions carry the same requirements, Robinson pointed out.
She said some offenders, those classified as violent sexual predators, for example, must report every 90 days to update and verify their information and have a new photo taken. Others have to report only once a year.
Charges including rape, child molestation or any sex crime involving force or serious bodily injury will land an offender on the registry for life. Lesser offenses will allow an offender to be dropped from the registry after 10 years.
Additional obstacles arise when criminals cross state lines. If an offender is convicted outside the state but lives in Indiana, there are different guidelines to follow.
“It is not a black-and-white issue,” Robinson said.
Sign up for alerts
There are serious penalties if a sex offender does not comply with the court’s demands.
Offenders who fail to register the proper information and update it adequately are slapped with Level 6 felony charges and face a year or more in prison.
The laws regarding child molesters, their crimes and the length of time in prison they serve for those offenses are set by the Indiana General Assembly. The prosecutor’s office is bound by those guidelines, even when the public cries out for a harsher punishment, Eaton said.
If Hancock County residents believe laws surrounding sex crimes need to be stricter, they should contact their representatives.
The sheriff’s department website maintains a link to the sex offender registry.
Concerned people can sign up for alerts informing them when a sex offender moves to or begins working within a certain radius of their home.
That won’t prevent every crime, but it gives parents a place to start.
“We make all of that information available,” Shepherd said. “It’s all about protecting the kids.”