‘Too many people don’t believe these children’: Recognizing child sex abuse signs could change court outcomes

‘Too many people don’t believe these children’: Recognizing child sex abuse signs could change court outcomes

HARTSVILLE, S.C. (WMBF) -Sixty-three percent of sexual assault charges involving minors have been dismissed in South Carolina since 2013.

Nearly every county in the state reports dismissal as the most likely outcome for the charge.

WMBF Investigates uncovered a child’s age, absence of physical evidence and lack of witnesses make these charges nearly impossible to prosecute.

The statistics reveal too many victims are left empty-handed in their search for justice in the criminal court system.

The people involved in the process bear the reality of this outcome every day and said they aren’t surprised.

“I hate it. But, I’ve been in general pediatrics for 20 years prior to coming into this and so I think it’s just ignorance on our part,” said Dr. Elizabeth Morphis.

Morphis is the medical director at the Durant Children’s Center in Hartsville. The nonprofit provides medical exams, forensic interviews, treatment, intervention and counseling for abused children.

“I think too many people don’t believe these children. You know, when a little 5-year-old comes up and says, ‘My daddy did this,' or 'My mama hit me with the broom,’ you’re like, ‘That so silly. You don’t have a bruise,’” Morphis said. “I think we dismiss children a lot of times and we can’t do that.”

Morphis performs the medical exam on children who come into the center but said rarely is there physical evidence of sexual assault.

“Everybody wants to see a tear or hard evidence and most of the time there’s not. That does not mean it didn’t happen,” she said. “So that’s where we testify and try to convince the jury or the judge that, look, only 2% of cases you’re going to see this hard trauma.”

She explained this is because there is often a lapse in time between when the child is abused and when they report it.

Morphis said the hardest part for her is changing people’s mindset to understand proof of sexual abuse isn’t isolated to only physical evidence.

“I want to get out and go speak to every rotary and every civic organization and every church organization and just explain it's the kid next door. It's the little boy on the playground that has been abused and we don't know it,” Morphis said.

She said now it’s her mission to get the word out and change the percentage of dismissed cases. Morphis believes the way to do that is by educating doctors, teachers, attorneys, counselors, and entire communities on the warning signs of abuse.

According to Morphis, signs of child abuse are a change in behavior. Sexually abused children sometimes start acting out, withdrawing, crying for no reason and wetting the bed.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network adds other behavioral signs include:

  • Shying away from physical contact
  • Sleep disturbances and nightmares
  • Changing hygiene routines
  • Inappropriate sexual behavior for a child’s age

Physical signs include:

  • Bruising or swelling near the genital area
  • Blood on sheets
  • Broken bones

Verbal signs include:

  • Use of inappropriate adult language
  • Unexplained silence
  • Less talkative

For a full list of signs in children of all ages, click here.

They look just like everybody else at school. They don’t come in with a Scarlet letter.”
Dr. Morphis

Beyond recognizing the signs, Morphis explained too few people know what to do with them.

“You don’t have to have proof that someone was abused. You just have to have any kind of doubt. If any degree of doubt pops into your mind, something that a child has told you, you need to call DSS or law enforcement,” Morphis said.

Many medical practitioners, educational professionals, and childcare providers are mandatory reporters in South Carolina.

Morphis suggests if someone does suspect abuse to take the child to a safe environment where they feel comfortable and call law enforcement.

“That’s the first step they need to take and if it’s something that the kid made up or if it’s wrong, that’s OK,” Morphis said. “I rather call a law enforcement five times and it’d be a big joke than miss one.”

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