WMBF Investigates: Is S.C. doing enough to protect children from sexual assault?

WMBF Investigates: Is S.C. doing enough to protect children from sexual assault?

HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) - Childhoods stripped away too soon is a grim reality happening too often across South Carolina.

Nearly 10,000 charges of criminal sexual offenses involving minors were filed at courts throughout the state since 2013.

In a WMBF News investigation, six-and-a-half years’ worth of statewide court data were combed through. The discovery was not all charges led to the justice sought.

A victim’s story

Earlier this year, Katie noticed a change in her 4-year-old son. He was wetting the bed, having night terrors and acting out. At first, she thought it was because of the new baby in the house.

It wasn’t until her son came to her crying one day that the truth came out.

“He was like, ‘It's about Daddy.’ And then he's telling me that he touched him and so I called the police and I file a police report,” Katie said.

U.S. Marshals arrested the father for criminal sexual conduct with a minor back in April.

Seven months later, the case is pending, and Katie is left wondering what she can do to protect her son.

“He used to be the happiest person, happiest little child and now he’s terrified of everything. It’s terrible.”
Katie, victim's mother

Katie’s son has gone through a medial exam, a recorded forensic interview and all the other steps needed to bring the case to the courtroom. She also thought the father’s prior criminal record would help her son get justice.

The father is already on the National Sex Offender Registry.

He was convicted in 2004 for first-degree criminal sexual conduct with minors. He was only 17 years old at the time, so he was labeled as a juvenile tier III offender.

However, what Katie thought was a stacking pile of evidence in her favor turned out to might not be enough, she said.

She was told at 4 years old, her son is too young to testify.

“If they can't get him to take a plea, then it pretty much gets dropped and the no contact hearings, everything goes away and we'll have to resume like normal visitation,” Katie recalled being told.

The outcome isn’t unique, and Katie isn’t the only parent left wondering if the court system is doing enough to help children.

“I'm just trying to figure out what I can do to get justice for my child,” Katie said.

Inside the data

Nearly 10,000 charges involving sexual offenses with minors were filed in South Carolina from January 2013 to June 2019.

Approximately 63 percent of those charges were dismissed in the last six-and-a-half years. Dismissal is the most common outcome for these charges and only 10 counties report dismissal rates under 50 percent.

Horry, Allendale and Georgetown counties reported the highest percentage in which charges were dismissed.

Guilty pleas are the second-most likely outcome. However, Horry and Georgetown counties are among those with the lowest percentage of guilty pleas.

Only 4 percent of statewide charges made it to a trial, or less than 500. Of those, 35 percent ended with a not guilty verdict.

Allendale, Kershaw and Pickens counties reported the highest percentage where the charges led to a trial.

The data shows around seven out of 10 charges will not be sentenced.

Even when sentenced, charges can be pleaded down. WMBF Investigates uncovered 13 percent of the sentences were for misdemeanors, while another 40 percent were pleaded down in severity. Only 8 percent of charges were sentenced to a higher severity.

The people involved in this reality every day said the numbers don’t surprise them.

The reality of the system

“Those youngest children are the most difficult cases, way more than murder, way more difficult than the other rapes, way more difficult than kidnapping,” 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said. “It’s very difficult to go forward, if not impossible.”

According to Richardson, when a child can’t testify a big piece of evidence is removed from the case making it nearly impossible to prosecute.

Forensic interviewers and judges determine the competency of a child beforehand.

“Developmentally, three-, four-, five-year-olds, they're always going to be tripped up by certain things and they will not remember certain things and a decent attorney could take that and do whatever with it to make the child look better or worse,” forensic interviewer Robin Griggs said. “There's always things with young kids and memory and suggestibility that's always going to get thrown up regardless.”

Griggs said in order to be competent children will have to know the difference between a lie and a truth and be able to piece together a narrative.

Griggs is one of the forensic interviewers across the state who records interviews with the child as they recount what happens. However, that interview can’t be played in place of a child testifying.

This system isn’t set up to be able to prosecute that person."
Jimmy Richardson, 15th Circuit Solicitor

Richardson explains the age of a child doesn’t automatically dismiss the case but there would need to be eyewitnesses or physical evidence to make up for the lack of victim testimony.

Unfortunately, cases with minors often are delayed reports and the nature of the case often eliminates the possibility of witnesses.

“This has been around for a long time. I won’t call it a loophole, but this little niche in the law for very young children, it’s pretty tough to get around,” Richardson said.

As it relates to Katie’s case, Richardson said prior history of a defendant can’t be brought up until sentencing. Even though the father is already on the National Sex Offender Registry in her case, a jury can’t know it.

“If you try to tell them that it's a mistrial and then it's over,” Richardson said. “There are rules that are built into the system to protect the defendant's rights that also make it much harder to prosecute these sorts of cases.”

It’s a difficulty that leads to 63 percent of the charges being dismissed and defendants going free.

Richardson said defendants who are released can reoffend.

“There’s not a lot you can do with that,” Richardson said. “When you’re talking to the parents, I mean, certainly that comes up, but it doesn’t change. This system isn’t set up to be able to prosecute that person.”

Alternate forms of justice

“It’s really nothing that the criminal court system can do,” Richardson said of some of the tough cases involving young children without evidence.

The criminal court system is designed to give defendants a fair trial and proving charges beyond a reasonable doubt. This structure doesn’t always play out in the favor of victims.

However, the criminal court system isn’t the only avenue for victims in sexual misconduct cases to recover and get a sense of justice.

The Department of Social Services and family court are other resources that can provide alternative outcomes if criminal charges are dropped.

Family courts have a lower level of proof required than criminal court.

“If you think about the lady justice and her scales, if you put a pebble in one scale, it's gonna tip ever so slightly. And so that's, that's the burden of proof. It just has to tip ever so slightly in an agency's favor,” explained T. Brooke Allen, a managing attorney for DSS in Darlington and Chesterfield counties.

Family courts can petition to use video interviews in place of children 11 years old and younger taking the stand. A perpetrator’s prior criminal history can also be used to restrict visitation rights.

The most extreme outcome a case in family court could achieve is prohibiting contact between the child and the offender and placing the offender on the Central Registry.

The Central Registry is a private database that can be used to vet people before hiring for jobs involving elders or children.

However, not every criminal charge is able to be investigated by DSS.

The department only gets involved if the incident involves a parent or human trafficking. If the criteria are met, DSS has 45 days to investigate alongside law enforcement.

The DSS office in Darlington has indicated seven reports of sexual abuse since September 2018.

Even in family court, Allen said judges are hesitant to completely cut off parental rights, although she said she always asks the judge for no contact between the perpetrator and the victim.

Despite the alternate option, Allen said she recognizes the frustration from victims.

I don’t think that the system is failing. I just think that that’s the perception and I’ll completely, 100% understand why.”
T. Brooke Allen, a managing attorney for DSS in Darlington and Chesterfield counties.

She said multiple factors impact the outcome of not only these cases, but all cases.

“The caseloads are so heavy and our judicial system is so overrun in all areas. We don't have enough judges, we don't have enough courtrooms, we don't have enough court reporters, so there's a lot of staff and moving parts that go into even having a day of court and much less a week of court,” Allen said.

She explained that decreasing the number of dismissed cases and time for cases requires many systematic reforms from court time, bail availability, and the number of judges and courthouse staff.

They’re changes that likely won’t come soon, leaving parents like Katie wondering how many more have to go through a similar experience.

“I know there's other parents who are frustrated because it's like what are you supposed to do to help your child? If they're making you send them back to the person who hurt them because of their age, that's not right,” she said.

Is there a fix?

We do the best we can, but I hate the kids fall through the cracks sometimes."
Robin Griggs, forensic interviewer

Griggs added she thinks greater justice could be achieved if the forensic interview could be played without the child testifying.

Richardson agrees that the only thing that could really help is allowing the recorded interview in lieu of a young child taking the stand.

In the United States, offenders have a right to face their accuser, but states can have exceptions to this. South Carolina does not have such an exception.

Dr. Elizabeth Morphis is the medical director at the Durant Children’s Center in the Pee Dee. She has case after case of sexually-assaulted minors come through her exam room. She’s also been in the courtroom testifying when juries decide an offender is not guilty.

She said the cases that don’t end in sentencing hurt her heart.

“Now my mission is to get that word out and change that percentage. I want that change,” Morphis said.

Despite dealing with the reality of these statistics every day, she said cases without conviction are not complete losses.

“Everybody in that courtroom, even though the outcome was not what we wanted, they know a little bit more than they did when they went in. And so I feel like that's going to help us in the future,” Morphis said.

She said she believes a small way the numbers can change in the victims’ favors is by spreading awareness. That encompasses educating attorneys, law enforcement, doctors and the public about what signs to look for, noting that physical evidence isn’t the only sign, and teaching people how to report sexual abuse.

For Morphis, it all comes back to the well-being of the victim. While justice in the courtroom may not always be achieved, healing still can be.

“I would love to have that perpetrator put away. My next step is to treat that child medically and mentally,” Morphis said, “You’re 4 years old and you’ve been through trauma. You can have a great outcome, but we’ve got to recognize it and treat it.”

Resources:

Reporting Abuse and Neglect: https://dss.sc.gov/abuseneglect/report-child-abuse-and-neglect/

Pee Dee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Assault: https://peedeecoalition.org/

  • Durant Children’s Center: 843.664.4357
  • 24-HOUR CRISIS LINE: 843.669.4600

Horry and Georgetown Child Recovery Center: https://www.childrensrecoverycenter.org/

Myrtle Beach Rape Crisis Center: https://victimtosurvivor.org/index.php/contact

  • Hotline: 843-488-RAPE (7273).

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