Part 3: Child sexual assaults reported daily in north central Wisconsin

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(WSAW) -- Between two and three times a day, a child sexual assault is reported to social services somewhere in north central Wisconsin. And more than once each day, a police investigation opens in that same area--for that same reason.

But the story of each report takes a complex journey after that first step, with the numbers decreasing as the stages progress. 7 Investigates set out to get a picture of how many initial reports come in across the area, and what happened to those reports that never made it to court.

With initial reports beginning largely at either social services or law enforcement -- with both agencies frequently handing off reports to each other -- it is necessary to trace the path of the investigation at each agency. Both agencies told 7 Investigates most people that report these potential assaults are mandatory reporters like teachers, medical providers, law enforcement officers, and counselors.

Social Services

In nine out of the 15 counties 7 Investigates requested data from, at least 850 initial reports of child sex assault came to the county’s social services agency. Initial reports can come from anywhere: a person who saw something suspicious and reported it, or a mandatory reporter like a teacher who overheard kids talking about something that sounded like an assault. The next step is the screening process, which helps determine if those initial reports needs a social worker to step in, to be sent to law enforcement for investigation, or if there is no need for further follow up.

Six counties, as of this writing, provided 7 Investigates with complete information, which meant the number of initial reports, screened-in reports, and substantiated reports for 2018. Using those counties as a sample, a total of 609 child sex assaults were reported last year.

Of that sample, 326 or 54% were screened in. By the end of the process, only 13% of the 609 reports would be substantiated. Here’s why:

Once the agency gets the report, what happens can vary from case to case. The first step is to determine if the report matches these four criteria for screening out, taken here verbatim from Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families (DCF):

1) The alleged victim is 18 years of age or older, or
2) There is insufficient information to identify and locate the child or family, or
3) The allegations, even if true, would not meet the statutory definitions of abuse or neglect and do not describe behavior or conditions that constitute a threat of abuse or neglect in the future (See Appendix 1: Statutory Definitions of Abuse and Neglect), or
4) The report of alleged abuse is by a person who is not a “caregiver” as defined in s. 48.981(1)(am), Stats. And the agency has decided to not investigate such reports, except in reports alleging Sex Trafficking of a Child.

Marathon County’s Child Protective Services (CPS) Supervisor Christa Jensen explains that they first determine if the abuse comes from a primary or secondary caregiver.

“Those are anybody who lives within the home of the child or anybody who is in a caregiving role: a teacher, a babysitter, a cousin, aunt, uncle, grandma, grandpa, dad, brother, sister,” Jensen said.

If a report meets that requirement as well as the legal requirements for abuse, it is screened in. Last year, Marathon County screened in almost 60% of its reports. Other counties in the sample provided screened them in between 20% and 30% of the time.

For those screened out, a lot of factors can contribute.

"So for example,” Jensen said, “A report might come in where a child says, 'I was touched on the butt by my dad over the clothes.' What we need to note is was that for the purposes of sexual gratification or grooming or something of that nature?”

If the case reaches the legal definition of abuse, but the perpetrator is not a primary or secondary caregiver, or if the case does not involve sex trafficking, it is sent to law enforcement for further investigation. For screened-out cases, social services can still offer services to those involved.

Once the case is screened in, Jensen explained they assign the case with a timeline to the response time, “it can either be within 24-hours, so that same day and a scenario might be the alleged maltreater resides with that child and so we’re going to get out there right away to assess what’s happening.”

She continued that if that alleged maltreater does not live with the child or the child is not going to have contact with that person in a short period of time, the face-to-face response timeline can be stretched within five business days.

When the case is screened in, a report is investigated to determine if it meets the next level: substantiation, or a high probability of the assault having occurred. The threshold is high, but not as high as the levels needed to press criminal charges.

“We have to have a preponderance of evidence, so 51% essentially we believe this has happened,” Jensen notes.

A big part of that is determining things like if the offender was seeking sexual gratification through the act or that the act caused the child mental harm, which Jensen says can be a difficult part of the investigation, because there is often not a lot of evidence.

“You know, people would expect that, well if a small child was sexually abused and they go in for a SANE exam (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner), you’re going to be able to tell,” she said. “You don’t. Most often there is no physical evidence for sex abuse cases, so it often is a ‘he said she said’ case and if you get into a scenario where you have a child who, they don’t know the words because they’re too little to tell you what that really was.”

"Those can be really frustrating when you have that gut feeling that something has happened, but you don't have the the disclosure from the child and maybe nobody observed that to occur and maybe this child doesn't have any sexually acting-out behaviors that would be indicative of sexual abuse and your alleged maltreater says 'absolutely not.' Your case is closed at that point because you don't have a preponderance of evidence to substantiate and move that case forward."

Last year across the six-county sample, 24% of the screened-in cases were ultimately substantiated, or 13% of initial reports.

But even when a case does not get substantiated, a social worker is still looking at a safety plan for the child, and services can still be offered to help the child work through what he or she has gone through and heal.

“We want to give them the support and resources they need to keep their own families safe and stable,” Jensen said, “So that we can back out and help those families that can't do that on their own.”

Sometimes that involves opening a Child in Need of Protection or Services (CHIPS) case or petition, which would require a parent to comply with needed services for the child or coming up with a protective plan and potentially removing the child from the home.

“We try to work least restrictive measures first, so removing a child is our last resort always,” Jensen said. “Really, it’s when your primary parent is your maltreater that that child has the highest potential of being removed.”

“So scenarios such as when a parent or a significant other of a parent who -- a primary household member -- lives in the home and the non-offending parent doesn’t believe the child,” Jensen explained. “That child might have to be removed from that home if the alleged maltreater is going to be staying and that parent is completely incapable of protecting their child, then we’re always going to look to relatives first.

She explained in those cases, a social worker would arraigned for the child to stay with another family member or neighbor for a period of time until the situation can be sorted out. Or the social worker may work out a schedule with the parent so the alleged maltreater will not be allowed in the home when the child is present.

Law Enforcement Investigations

Child sexual assault reports may also be reported to law enforcement agencies.

We requested data from 48 law enforcement agencies in the 15 north central Wisconsin counties. 26 of those department returned our requests as of Monday evening, so these numbers are based on their information.

7 Investigates found 409 police investigations into child sexual assault opened across north central Wisconsin last year--or at least one every day. But as those cases move through the system, that number drops substantially.

Cases that can’t be proved wind up administratively closed or unfounded--which vary in meaning. Detective Lt. Nathan Cihlar of the Wausau Police Department describes unfounded as cases where they are able to establish a crime has not occurred, while administratively closed cases can mean they were unable to prove whether the crime happened--or didn’t happen.

There are many reasons why a case could fall into this category. Sometimes the family or victim won’t cooperate with police as they investigate. Other times there isn’t enough evidence to suggest a crime happened--or any evidence at all.

Lt. Jeff Stefonek, of the investigations division in the Marathon County Sheriff’s Office says, it “doesn’t mean nothing happened to their child, but the facts that we were presented with don’t lead to probable cause for an arrest on a case.”

In 2018, 211 cases led to an arrest, a referral to the District Attorney for prosecution, or were referred to a youth justice program. But even a referral to the District Attorney doesn’t ensure an arrest is made.

“Just because we refer somebody for charges doesn’t always mean that they decide that there’s enough to prosecute or go forward, or that conviction results,” noted Lt. Cihlar.

7 Investigates will provide a more in-depth breakdown of north central Wisconsin law enforcement data in a follow-up article.

Juvenile on Juvenile

It's important to note that most cases where the offender is a juvenile under 17 do not go to adult court, and are often handled through the Youth Justice department of a social services agency.

A restorative justice solution--in many cases, a Deferred Prosecution Agreement--is often the preferred method for these cases where the juvenile committed an assault. The child's development and intentions are taken into consideration, as especially in younger children, cases are often rooted in curiosity or poor boundaries. Community service, education, and other non-punitive options are all considered at that point of the investigation.

Putting a juvenile in detention is the last resort in such cases, and last year, no child was sent to the Lincoln Hills youth prison from NewsChannel 7's viewing area.

While children cannot legally consent to sexual contact, a law put in place last year decriminalizes voluntary sexual contact between teens close in age if they are less than 19-years-old and does not require them to be registered as sex offenders. Those cases are reviewed but often screened out if found to be consensual.

However, because the reporting standards were so recently changed, various law enforcement agencies included some of that data in their overall number of investigations. It's important to note that these represented only a small minority of cases.

Part 4 of our Cycle of Abuse series follows substantiated evidence to the next level: the courtroom.