Child Sexual Abuse Investigations More Successful With Teamwork
It's hard to accept, but child sexual abuse can happen in any community. Prosecuting these crimes means that kids have to disclose the details of what happened, and it's easier for them to do so when people are prepared to listen and intervene. Across Wyoming law enforcement, prosecutors and social services are teaming up to support child victims, but it hasn't always been that way.
Kailyn Cook was born and raised in Green River, Wyoming. Spectacular rock formations dominate the scenery in this small town. But Cook's childhood there was anything but serene.
She was just two years old when a medical condition raised a red flag. She said it was her aunt who clued into what was going on. An exam revealed signs of sexual abuse but didn't provide conclusive evidence about who was doing it.
"I wasn't really able to get on the stand and say he actually did this to me," said Cook. "I mean a two-year-old just can't do that."
At age two kids are just starting to put words together into simple sentences. Cook didn't yet have the verbal skills to convince anyone that her own stepfather was the perpetrator. And the case went nowhere.
"It didn't come out again until I was nine when I told my best friend that stuff was going on," she said.
Through that friend, word got to the Department of Family Services.
"DFS came and picked me up from school and it was terrifying."
Cook had a brief phone conversation with her mom before being pulled out of school. She said her mom told her the allegations would rip her family apart. Cook was scared, so when DFS sat her down for an interview she recanted.
But the abuse continued, and at age 14 she disclosed it to her boyfriend. He told the police, and this time she was brought to the station for an interview with a detective.
"There was no evidence. It really was just my word against his and I don't think the detective really did a good job with interviewing," said Cook. "The case was dropped. There was insufficient evidence."
In her eyes, all of the mechanisms in place to protect kids had failed.
"I was kind of dropped by the system," she said. "Then when I was 16 a conversation was taking place between me and my perpetrator, and I hit record on my phone."
And she got a recorded confession from her stepdad, which eventually led to his conviction. He was put on the sex offender registry but only sentenced to 10 years' probation.
Watching her abuse drag out for 15 years fueled a passion to see these cases handled differently. So Cook pursued a career in law enforcement and now works as a victim advocate in Cheyenne. She said things are changing in Wyoming.
"We're taking sexual assault cases to trial and we're winning them. That's super, super unheard of," said Cook.
She points to a recent trial in Natrona County, where a six-year-old girl's testimony helped convict her abuser. The investigator on the case was Taylor Courtney.
"These investigations are by far the most complex investigations. They're largely circumstantial and a lot of times lack physical evidence," said Courtney. "Not only are they difficult to work but they at the end of the day they take an emotional toll."
And that's why Courtney works these cases with a multi-disciplinary team or MDT. Social services, law enforcement, and the prosecuting attorney work together to build a case, and to help kids heal and recover.
"Having the team is extremely effective at solving these cases and actually having the cases brought forth before the court," said Courtney.
He said a critical piece of this process is the Children's Advocacy Project. CAP, as it's called for short, is located just a few blocks from the courts and law enforcement offices in downtown Casper.
Baleigh Hite greeted me at the door of a simple one-story house with a warm welcome. She is a forensic interviewer who specializes in working with children. She uses open-ended questions to draw out the details of what happened. The technique also helps identify false allegations, which she said are rare.
She shows me the rooms where she conducts forensic interviews with kids.
"You don't want them to be too stimulating so there are distractions. So we try to keep it as warm but as plain as possible," she explained as we stood in a room with two big leather chairs, an area rug, and some basic wallpaper. This where kids ages 6 to 17 come for interviews.
Kids under six meet next door in a room with a tiny table and two tiny chairs.
"We get on their level when we are talking with them and offer crayons, coloring," said Hite. "So it's more comfortable for them."
She said the more comfortable kids are, the more likely they are to open up and that's key. Sexual abuse usually happens in secret, so there aren't witnesses. That means a kid's testimony is a critical piece of evidence. And the more details a kid can provide about the circumstances of the abuse, the easier it is for law enforcement to verify their allegations.
Each room has a camera so members of the MDT can watch and hear the interview without overwhelming the kid.
"So it's not scary for them because they're really only talking to me face-to-face and not a big group of people," said Hite. "But everyone gets the information all in one place, so the child doesn't have to be questioned more than once."
The Child Advocacy Project also has therapists who offer support to kids as they navigate the criminal justice system, and in the years that follow the conclusion of their case.
Kailyn Cook, the child sexual abuse survivor turned victim advocate, wants all kids in Wyoming to have access to these services.
"I know that going through the criminal justice system is extremely complicated," said Cook. "But at least in the end when they come through this, they can say 'I had a friend.'"
There are two other child advocacy centers in Wyoming, one in Cheyenne and one in Jackson, and they work with counties across the state, but it means kids or center staff have to travel, sometimes hours. Because of this, the three centers are working together on a gap survey to identify which parts of the state are in the greatest need of services, in the hopes of someday expanding.
This story was produced in partnership with the Casper Star-Tribune. Shane Sanderson's reporting takes a deeper look at access to child advocacy centers in Wyoming.