A 12-year-old boy was reported Tuesday as having spent at least a year locked in a bathroom in Washington County, leaving at a weight of 30 pounds. Reports like these open the community’s eyes to the larger issue of child abuse in the U.S. and how often it occurs.
A report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds in the United States. Utah receives almost 60,000 reports of child abuse each year, which is enough children to fill a football stadium according to childhelp.org.
The Utah Valley Special Victims Unit Task Force, commonly known as SVU, is responsible for helpings survivors of sexual abuse to find justice.
“I was over the fugitive task force (before coming to SVU), and we just kind of went around and caught felons who had warrants out for their arrests,” SVU Sgt. Jason Randall said. “So that was fun, but this is better.”
Many people believe Utah does not carry its full weight in child abuse statistics each year because it is a more religious state said Sgt. Randall. The truth is Utah is right on par with every other state when it comes to these types of cases.
One in every four girls will have been sexually abused by the age of 18, and every day four or five children nationwide die from child neglect and abuse, according to Childhelp.
Police departments all over Utah have responded to this epidemic by creating Special Victims Units that specialize in crimes against children and sex crimes, but the Utah Valley SVU Task Force was created to cover sex crimes in all Utah counties without their own SVU.
The task force consists of five different agencies and seven full-time SVU employees. There are three full-time detectives on the task force under Randall and detectives from nearly every agency in Utah County that investigate special victims part time.
The task force also includes victim advocates, a sex offender registry coordinator, Child Protective Services, the Children’s Justice Center and four county attorneys that try only special victims cases. This is a large team of people that are all kept extremely busy.
“There will never be a time when the detectives don’t have a case to work,” Randall said. “Right now they are all carrying multiple cases and every day we usually get more cases coming in. They will never not have something to do.”
Most of the cases assigned to the task force come from 911 calls, according to Randall. Once a 911 call is received and a patrol officer takes the initial statement to confirm it is a sex crime, the case is then handed over to the SVU.
If the call doesn’t come from a concerned relative via 911, then the tip is most likely to come from people such as priests, bishops and therapists, who are what the law calls “mandatory reporters.”
Whitney Tate is a recently retired SVU detective who now works with the Children’s Justice Center. She described the process of receiving a case and what the detectives do to gain justice for the victims as two-fold. The first assignment is to interview the victim.
“If it is a child, anyone younger than the age of 18, then we try to interview them at the CJC and if it’s an adult, then we interview them at our office,” Tate said. “The bottom line is they come to us and we say to them, ‘Tell us everything from the beginning to the end.’”
Then the CJC workers listen. If there are other victims, siblings or potential witnesses to the crime, they are interviewed as well. After everything is covered, the detectives will seek out the suspect for an interview.
Tate said once the interviews are done, the cases usually wrap up and are ready to present to county attorneys for prosecution within a couple of weeks.
For officers, however, it’s not that easily done. One of the most important parts of the process is the victim’s testimony, and it is also one of the trickiest parts to obtain according to Tate. This is where the Children’s Justice Center plays an important role. It is there to create a safe, professional and loving environment so the children feel comfortable enough to tell their stories.
The Children’s Justice Center records the interviews so the children only have to tell their story once and are not re-traumatized over and over again because of a lengthy trial. The center also gives the children teddy bears and follows up with families throughout the entire process.
“It is just sad that this is happening,” Tate said. “It’s so tragic. That’s why the CJC is here to help with that whole process and make it less scary.”
Once the victims have been interviewed and the case against the accused is made, the county attorneys take over. Working closely with the county attorneys is an integral part of the task force, according to Randall. They make sure the perpetrators take the plea deal, serve the most time for their crimes and get justice for the victims.
“We work hand in hand with them,” Randall said. “Usually, on patrol or even in warrants or fugitive apprehension, you get a case, you file a report, you send it over and that’s pretty much it. But for us, we are literally in daily contact with the county attorneys.”
Randall said the conviction rate for the Special Victims Task Force is very good and the work they do is essential, but working sex crimes is in no way a glamorous job. The Special Victims Unit is the most emotionally taxing unit on the force, according to Randall.
Officers find it is a difficult adjustment and can be frustrating. Most of the work done by the task force is reactive, meaning the deed has already been done and there is no taking it back, so children have already been damaged. Tate agreed, adding that serving on the task force is one of the hardest things she has ever done.
“I will be the first one to admit that it really was (one of the hardest things I’ve ever done), but I just wanted to make a difference,” Tate said. “I just knew that that’s where I felt I could make the most difference and so I think that’s why I went there for my last four years even though it’s so very hard.”
The world is changing and crime rates are rapidly rising, but the crimes dealt with by the Special Victims Unit are by far some of the most disturbing. Throughout their daily efforts and struggles, Randall said their one goal is to be the voice for those people that don’t have a voice and to get justice for the victim.