Crime & Courts

Child-sex crimes span Sedgwick County

The girl remembered her stepfather sitting her and her siblings in front of the television, starting a movie and giving them popcorn.

"Then he would call me to his room," the girl, now 13, remembered. "Then whatever happened would happen. I didn't know everything that was going on then, because I was only 4 years old."

Too young to know how grown men touched women and became intimate with them. But often, they are touching children the same way.

About two times a week, someone in the Wichita area is charged with committing a sex crime against a child in Sedgwick County District Court. An Eagle analysis of 128 cases over the past 18 months shows the crimes span the county, affecting nearly every neighborhood and every socioeconomic group.

Those 128 are the ones that reach the legal requirements for filing charges. Hundreds of others are reported and substantiated, but because of frightened victims and uncooperative families, criminal charges are never filed.

"Think of how many more cases that are happening but just don't have enough evidence to charge them," said Deputy District Attorney Marc Bennett, who leads the division that prosecutes sexual abuse of children. "It's sobering."

Each year, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit receives between 440 and 515 reports of child sexual abuse.

"And those are just the ones who tell," said the abused girl's mother.

The mother had been abused by her father when she was 11. She said her mother didn't believe her. So she remained silent.

As an adult, she learned about her daughter's abuse by her stepfather from a social services worker and police officer.

"He was in the Navy, he had been viewing child porn on his computer on the ship," the mother said. "They searched our house and wanted to interview all the children in the house. And my daughter came out about her molestation."

Neither the daughter nor mother are named because the Eagle does not identify victims of sexual assaults.

Many children are afraid to tell a parent about their sexual abuse. This girl was no different.

"He told me if I ever told mom he would hurt her, so that's why I never told her," the girl said of her stepfather's assaults.

The stepfather confessed to her mother of his sexual relations with the girl after he was tried, convicted and sentenced to 18 years in a military prison.

The people who prey on children know their victims don't make good witnesses.

"During jury selection, I always ask jurors, 'Who wants to stand up and describe in detail their last sexual encounter. They always laugh at that," Bennett said. "Then I say, 'Okay, now imagine you're 8 years old.' "

Jessica's Law

Four years ago, the prosecution of crimes got tougher, and stickier for the justice system with the passage of Jessica's Law.

That law passed in 2006 imposed mandatory sentences of 25 years to life for people convicted of crimes against children ages 14 or younger.

Nearly half of the criminal cases filed in Sedgwick County during the past 18 months fall under Jessica's Law.

Of 128 cases charged in Sedgwick County since January of 2009, 57 of them fall under Jessica's Law.

Of those, about three out four cases are still awaiting trial.

The law has produced fewer pleas, forcing more trials, which stretch resources and cost the public.

"Every time you have a mandatory sentence you are going to find exceptions," said District Attorney Nola Foulston. "We want justice, but there are different levels of justice."

Bennett remembered a case just after the law passed where a man drove up to a young girl walking to a friend's house near the Derby Police Department.

The man lassoed the girl with a rope around her neck and pulled her into the cab of his truck. He drove her outside the city and sodomized her, then took her back to Derby and pushed her out of the truck.

The next week, a mentally challenged man grabbed the breasts of a 13-year-old sister of a roommate.

"Both of these cases are Jessica's Law, but they are not the same," Bennett said. "All cases are terrible. But one thing that makes these cases difficult for the system is finding an equitable way to deal with these things."

The person from Derby was sentenced to life. The mentally challenged man pleaded to a lesser charge and received a six-year sentence.

Defense attorneys say local prosecutors have been willing to work with them to help make sure the punishment fits the crime.

"Jessica's Law are the kinds of cases that keep defense attorneys up at night," said Laura Shaneyfelt, a Wichita lawyer.

Shaneyfelt recalled cases of 18-year-old boys and 13-year-old girls having sex, which would demand a life sentence.

"Having two teenagers myself, I worry about how they might make decisions that will imperil their future," Shaneyfelt said.

Striking a balance

The Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County is trying to strike a balance in helping to protect children and their families. It takes referrals from the Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit.

Each Wednesday, a team of social workers, health care specialists, police, prosecutors, counselors and others meet to discuss new cases.

"We try to figure out if a case is not going to be charged criminally, are there other services to help this family?" said Diana Schunn, director of the center. "Our primary goal is the safety of the children, and sometimes that takes putting our collective heads together to find a solution."

Of the more than 400 cases that EMCU investigates, about 100 will result in criminal charges.

The cases that don't go to court are referred to Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, said Lt. Jeff Weible of the EMCU.

"We may have cases where we don't have enough evidence to charge a suspect," Weible said. "But you know in the back of your minds, something probably did happen. And we try to offer services that won't put the victim in that situation again."

In nearly every case, children are sexually abused by people closest to them, parents, stepparents, relatives and neighbors.

"Most of the time it's somebody the children trust," Weible said.

Because of that, children are frightened to tell anyone what's happened to them.

The mother and daughter who agreed to tell their stories for this report said they hope by speaking out, others also will find the courage to talk.

"Tell someone," the girl said. "Don't be afraid to speak. Tell someone, even if he does make threats.

Said the mother: "The more we talk about this, the more they will know they are not alone."