In the early to mid-1980s, I worked for several years as a child protection/child welfare caseworker in a small Indiana county. In those roles, I worked on cases involving the sexual abuse of adolescents.
One case has always remained in my mind. It involved the sexual abuse of a young girl by her father. This abuse had gone on for many years. It began when the girl was a child and continued to the time she was a teenager. The father was unrepentant. He was given 3 years in prison.
Since this minimal sentence upset me, I decided to stay around to talk to the judge to learn why a man who had abused his child for much of her life was given what I saw as a light sentence. The next hearing was to set a sentence for a man convicted of burglary. He was given eight years. This further confused me and angered me.
In the past several weeks there have been numerous articles in both the Daily Reporter and other regional newspapers about men sentenced for sexually abusing children. While some have been sentenced for as much as 20 years, many have received sentences of fewer than 10 years. As in the situation I encountered around 30 years ago, I am dumbfounded by what I see as light sentences.
As a licensed clinical social worker, I worked with many people who had been molested as children, some by parents, some by other trusted family members, some by coaches and other trusted adults, and a very few by strangers. None of the people I saw walked away from the abuse unscathed. Some had years of therapy. Even among those I have met who have lived fairly healthy lives, they would never forget the abuse.
This is where my anger continues. We do not see sentences that reflect the damage done to children. Because the abuse is often perpetrated by a family member or other trusted adult, it is often more damaging to the child to have that trust broken. And we do not see sentences that reflect the fact the child through adulthood will never be able to forget what was done.
There has been a great deal of work in developing therapies to treat those who sexually harm children. These therapies work best when the abuse occurs within a family. They are ineffective for most perpetrators. And that includes family members.
And I am not minimizing the effects of physical abuse and neglect. Since these are even more likely to be perpetrated by family members, there are often no legal charges brought against the parents. These situations are for another column.
There are those who would argue that when the perpetrator is a parent, the child and other children in the home are subjected to further damage when that parent is no longer available. While I empathize with that reality, I also believe a perpetrator can gain access to the victim again unless he is removed from society. And most perpetrators are male.
I am not one to call for harsh sentences for the sake of punishment. However, I do believe sentences that allow the abused person to see that society really understands the gravity of the crime and that allow the child to grow into adulthood and work on the consequence of the abuse, without the possibility of the abuser returning to that child’s life, are good reasons to seek longer sentences for the perpetrator. My hope is that our state legislators will look at this situation more closely.
Jim Matthews is a long-time resident of Greenfield. You may share your comments at email@example.com.