Professionals from diverse backgrounds dedicate efforts to fight sexual abuse of children

March 31, 2012|By JENNIFER FITCH |
  • Lauren Sulcove
Lauren Sulcove

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — Professionals from diverse backgrounds are working every day for a vulnerable segment of Franklin County’s population, dedicating their efforts to preventing and fighting sexual abuse of children.

When Lauren Sulcove left the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office in 2007 and moved to Franklin County, she expected to be prosecuting fewer child sex abuse cases because of the smaller population and rural setting.

“I have as many cases now as I did in Philadelphia,” said Sulcove, who graduated from Temple University School of Law.

In the city, Sulcove worked with other prosecutors who handled cases involving sexual abuse of a minor. Now, the majority of Franklin County’s criminal cases of that type land on her desk.

Sulcove provided The Herald-Mail with statistics regarding the number of victims in her cases by year. She included all sexual cases involving adults with victims who are 16 years old or younger.

In 2008, one defendant alone had eight victims, contributing to a year-end total of 34 cases. Twenty-nine victims were identified in 2009, 31 in 2010, 27 in 2011 and eight thus far in 2012.

Sulcove partners with police, Children & Youth Services (CYS), Women In Need, probation officers, the Franklin County Area Agency on Aging, and the state-level Sexual Offenders Assessment Board. Her position is funded through state and federal grants such as Stop Violence Against Women, since she prosecutes domestic violence, child abuse and occasionally elder abuse.

Pennsylvania State Police Trooper Courtney Pattillo said Franklin County agencies work well together to meet the needs of the victims.

“Victims need to realize we’re here for them,” Pattillo said. “We take their disclosure very seriously.”

The arrest of former Penn State University defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky last fall for child sex crimes shed a light on the issue and generated increased reports, Sulcove said.

“I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls from people whose cases cannot be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations. ... The statute of limitations has changed dramatically over the years,” she said.

The statute of limitations in a case is determined by the year of the alleged crime, Sulcove said. A minor sexually assaulted today can report the crime up to age 50, she said.

Tammie Lay, a supervisor with Franklin County CYS, said she has heard of other Pennsylvania counties being “inundated” with calls as the Sandusky scandal unfolded.

“I think a lot more people are aware of (sexual abuse of children) in a community. It’s not as hush-hush,” she said.

Pattillo, who shares his caseload with two other troopers in his division, does not attribute any increased reporting to Sandusky, but he said he has seen attitudes about child sex abuse change even in the five years he has specialized in those investigations.

“Back in the day, it was taboo, I think, to talk about these cases,” he said.

Victims range greatly in age, and many are boys, Sulcove said. Perpetrators often are family members or other people with close ties to the family, such as baby-sitters, she said.

“I’ve never, since I’ve been in this county, had a stranger-rape of a child,” Sulcove said.

Sexual abuse of a child can rip a family apart, often because a mother will side with the father or boyfriend and turn her back on the child, Sulcove said.

“It’s very devastating to a family, especially if the perpetrator is a head of household and financial contributor to a household,” Lay said.

Sexual abuse is typically discovered because a youth will reveal it to a friend, parent or teacher, Sulcove said.

Some professionals who work with youth, including doctors, psychiatrists and school employees, are required to report allegations of sexual abuse, according to Lay and Cassie Rahauser, a CYS assistant administrator.

CYS caseworkers assist people who stop by their offices on Franklin Farm Lane in Chambersburg, call them locally at 717-263-1900 or call a state hot line at 1-800-932-0313.

“Really, we can take reports from anyone. ... We start our investigation immediately at the time we received the call,” Lay said, saying the county agency took 57 sexual abuse reports in 2011.

First, CYS determines whether a child can safely remain in his or her home situation. It contacts police for all sexual abuse cases.

Often, Franklin County criminal investigators will refer potential victims to neighboring Adams County’s child advocacy center for forensic interviews that are recorded. The interviewers take breaks during the session to talk to police officers, such as Pattillo, who are observing from the opposite side of a two-way mirror.

The setting with colorful art on the walls is less sterile than investigation rooms at the barrack, Pattillo said.

“It’s a lot more kid-friendly. ... We get a lot more out of a child that way,” he said.

Lay and Rahauser said interviewers must be sensitive to a child’s needs because the child can shut down when officials need credible and consistent information.

“There’s a way to ask questions so they’re not answering how they think you want them to answer,” Lay said.

Using a resource like recorded interviews cuts down on the number of times a child needs to recount what happened, Sulcove said.

A national initiative called ChildFirst trains prosecutors, law enforcement, CYS caseworkers and solicitors, and forensic interviewers protocols for interviews focusing on the language and thought processes of a child. Described as a “one-stop shop interview,” the initiative gaining traction in Pennsylvania prevents a child from being subjected to multiple interviews.

Children appearing in court typically need to be at least 4 years old because they need to be competent to testify, Sulcove said.

She has a case under appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court regarding the testimony of a 3-year-old allegedly abused by the child’s father. A judge allowed statements the child made to other people as admissible; the defendant, who received a 23- to 50-year sentence, successfully appealed to a higher court.

The outcome from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court should prove to be interesting, Sulcove said.

“It’s certainly a timely thing in our state with all that’s going on at Penn State,” she said.

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