A file, stuffed with papers, sits on Bridget Foy’s desk, a post-it stuck to the top: “Call Mom.”
The documents inside detail the most tragic moments in a child’s life, moments Foy, a detective with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, is tasked with investigating.
The details the little girl suffered linger in Foy’s mind, so much so she’s penned a reminder to check on the girl’s recovery.
The case, and so many others like it, involves an innocent child abused by an adult — a crime local officials say is being reported more often.
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In the past five years, Hancock County prosecutors have filed 144 cases alleging sex crimes against children; that’s three times the number filed in the previous five-year span. The bulk of the charges being brought against those defendants are for child molest; in 2015, prosecutors filed child molest charges against 40 people suspected of abuse, the most charges brought in at least a decade.
State and local officials credit the increase to heightened awareness of crimes against children, including sex crimes.
Hancock County Prosecutor Brent Eaton has seen the spike in case filings firsthand; when he first served as a deputy prosecutor in Hancock County, between 2003 and 2006, child molest cases filed annually amounted to only the single digits, totaling 16 in those three years.
Since January 2015, the year he took office as the county’s elected prosecutor, nearly 60 defendants have been charged with child molest, including four in the last week alone.
Though the data is disturbing, Eaton said he doesn’t believe children are being sexually abused more often than they were a decade ago. Instead, he credits the increase in case filings to the work done by nonprofit organizations and state agencies to shed light on crimes that were once kept hidden, handled inside the family rather than by police.
Officials said the increase correlates to the creation of the Indiana Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline, a centralized reporting system that invites anyone who believes a child is being mistreated by an adult to call and anonymously report their suspicions.
The hotline was first put in place in January 2010 to ensure investigations of alleged child neglect and abuse, including sexual abuse, were handled quickly and consistently, said Jeannie Keating, an Indiana Department of Child Services spokeswoman.
More than 202,000 calls were made to the hotline statewide in 2015, statistics show. That’s up from 156,000 calls in 2013, a more than 29 percent increase.
Child molestations are some of the more difficult crimes to investigate, officials said. If a child waits to come forward, there often isn’t physical injury to point to as proof, meaning investigators must rely on a victim’s memory to gather evidence of the crime.
That’s difficult, said deputy prosecutor Georgeanna Teipen, who handles cases involving crimes against women and children for the local prosecutor’s office.
So often, children are coerced by their abuser into thinking an inappropriate touch or behavior is sign of affection or love, Teipen said. Children, especially those who are abused from a young age, don’t always realize they have been mistreated because they don’t know any different.
“This is what becomes normal for them …” she said. “They are worked, and they are manipulated.”
Though each case of child molest or sexual abuse is unique, the cases handled locally tend to fit into a pattern, Hancock County sheriff’s Sgt. Bridget Foy said.
Foy specializes in investigating crimes against children, and she is one of three detectives in the county specially trained to interview children about sexual assaults.
Often, victims are targeted because they are those children who lack self-confidence, she said. Abusers – most often a relative or a family friend — home in on these traits and take advantage of the moments when they are left alone with a child, Foy said.
Experts believe pedophilia can be treated by a therapist who can determine the person’s risk of abusing others, according to the Child Molestation Research and Prevention Institute.
Locally, police say continued community awareness is the best way to protect kids. Those at risk of abusing children might seek treatment, but meanwhile, it’s up to caregivers and those who work with children to watch for trouble signs, Foy said.
The Department of Child Services provides training videos on its website to teach caregivers how to recognize signs of sexual abuse. The Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, too, provides informational fliers regarding child safety on its website, along with links to the sex offender registry.
Foy hopes the increase in case filings signals to the community that officers and prosecutors are working hard to keep children safe and bring those who harm them to justice.
“Nobody wants to see these cases,” she said.