Part 5: Predators and broken families

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(WSAW) -- "The biggest danger is family members and trusted friends." (Lee Shipway, Peaceful Solutions Counseling executive director.)

Less than 2%.

That’s how many were total strangers to the child-victim at the center of a sample of 658 local police investigations since 2015, where 7 Investigates was able to establish the relationship of the suspect to the victim.

That's just 12 suspects.

But 60% of the time, the suspect a friend or acquaintance to the child. And 38% of the time, the suspect was a family member. And at least 84 times--leaving out a minority of cases where local law enforcement only identified the suspect as either family or acquaintance--that suspect was a parent or step-parent.

That means for north central Wisconsin, when a child is at the center of an investigation into sexual assault, it’s at least seven times more likely that the suspect is their own parent--not a stranger.

Behind all these numbers, however, are the stories of broken families.

Lee Shipway, the executive director at Peaceful Solutions Counseling in Wausau, has been counseling victims for 35 years--and says she’s seen this all too often.

“It really rips families apart. I have seen time and time again where there’s like two sides, part of the family’s on the victim’s side. The other part of the family is on the perpetrator side, and there are some people who just believe the perpetrator and can’t believe that he or she would have done that--and think the child is lying.”

But it doesn’t stop there. All too often, when the predator is part of a family’s support network, those consequences escalate quickly, as Marathon County’s Child Protective Services (CPS)’s supervisor Christa Jensen explains.

“They might need housing now, because the alleged maltreater might have been mom’s primary source of income.”

And as victim advocate Jessica Lind explains, “Now mom is upset with them, because maybe mom's boyfriend has to move out. So now mom is upset because she doesn't have the financial income to help pay her rent, and she's crying all the time and she's upset. And so sometimes kids will feel like it's their fault that now mom is sad and mom doesn't have a boyfriend and mom can't pay rent.”

Looking back over the past four years, mothers’ boyfriends were suspects in at least 21 cases of child sexual assault in north central Wisconsin--and that’s just the ones we know about.

Leaving the family and household circles, the vast majority of the remaining suspects ares till known to the victim. In at least 111 cases, those were boyfriends, girlfriends, and ex-significant others. From there, the list just keeps going: friends, family friends, classmates, online friends, parent’s employees, babysitters, babysitters’ boyfriends and children, other caregivers, friends’ parents, friends’ children, sisters’ boyfriends, daycare providers, teachers, coaches--and more. Each one of these came up at least once as a suspect in 7 Investigates’ sample size of 650 police investigations: most of them, many times.

And while there often isn’t an observable pattern or demographic for the suspect’s relationship to the victim, there’s another undeniable demographic: men.

About 90% of all suspects in local police investigations are male. The remaining females, even when named in a case, are often working with a male suspect--or are a juvenile offender.

Out of all the child sexual assault adult court cases in NewsChannel 7’s viewing area since 2015--389 cases--just 15 of the defendants were female. 10 of those cases are closed, four were found guilty of sexual assault charges, three were convicted of other charges, and two dismissed entirely.

Detective Jeff Stefonek from the Marathon County Sheriff’s Office says that’s why he encourages parents to primarily include females in a child’s network of trusted adults--outside of fathers or police officers.

“It does limit the chance that you’re telling your child to trust somebody who is a possible perpetrator,” Stefonek told 7 Investigates.

But Jensen cautions that the statistics don’t mean females can’t or don’t offend: anyone can be on this list.

“Hold up a mirror, because you could be a victim--or you could be a maltreater.”