GREENFIELD — An increasing number of sexual-assault cases has been filed in Hancock County in recent years, with the majority of them constituting crimes against children.
In 2012, 15 sex-abuse cases with child victims were filed locally, followed by 14 last year, according to data released by the Hancock County prosecutor’s office. The county hasn’t seen numbers that high since 2006. The Greenfield Police Department reports that last year, reports of sex crimes increased by 55 percent. 2014 appears to be continuing the upward trend.
But law enforcement officials say the news isn’t all bad. It’s unlikely the increase in case filings is indicative of more crimes being committed against children; instead, experts believe increased public awareness and a criminal justice system that is better equipped to handle sex crimes has empowered more victims to come forward. And speaking out is the first step to healing.
Sex-crimes cases are among the most difficult that law enforcement officers investigate, and they’re equally tedious for prosecutors.
But they’re also among the most important, given the trauma to the victim.
“You know that person’s never going to be the same,” Greenfield Police Department Lt. Randy Ratliff said.
Ratliff said his department has seen an uptick in sex-crimes reports for several years. In 2011, the department handled 15 reports; in 2012, that jumped to 25. Last year, detectives interviewed 40 victims of sexual assault. As of June 1, the department had taken 19 reports this year.
“Everything seems to run in cycles where crime’s concerned,” Ratliff said. “It just seemed like the cycle was never stopping with sex crimes last year. We’re almost at one a week.”
Greenfield Police Detective Sgt. Nichole Gilbert investigates the majority of sex crimes filed with the department. While they can be difficult, they are among the most rewarding, she said.
“These aren’t just property crimes,” Gilbert said. “Things can be replaced. People and their feelings and their emotions can’t be. The best thing we can do is try to get some sort of justice for these people, try to help rebuild their lives, … and make sure we put people away.”
It isn’t always easy.
Investigators face a number of challenges in a sex-crimes case, especially when there is a delay in reporting.
That’s not uncommon in cases when a person in a position of trust has manipulated a victim into keeping silent. With a delay in reporting comes lost evidence, foggy memories and other stumbling blocks that can make a case difficult to pursue.
But advances in technology have helped. For example, devices that collect data from personal electronics are commonplace in today’s investigations and can yield substantial evidence against a suspect.
“We’ve seen it all in people’s computers and their phones,” said Detective Capt. Jeff Rasche, who leads the investigations unit at the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department “There was never the technology to do that 10 years ago, period.
Even when a case isn’t rock solid, Hancock County Prosecutor Michael Griffin said his staff is up to the challenge. Prosecutors are willing to assume some risk to help those who have been traumatized.
“They’re the most vulnerable victims in our community,” he said. “If a sex crime has merit, it will be filed.”
Griffin’s chief deputy prosecutor, Tami Napier, specialized in sex crimes cases while she worked as a prosecutor in Marion County.
When she came to Hancock County in 2011 at the beginning of Griffin’s term, she brought that expertise with her.
Not to mention her passion for the work.
“It’s what gets me up in the morning,” Napier said. “There is nothing more satisfying about having a law degree than putting a child molester in prison.”
In 2013, Napier took on one of the most heinous molestation cases in recent county history; a Greenfield man was sentenced to 100 years after admitted he molested multiple children over a period of several years. His wife would go on to be convicted of neglect after allegations arose that she knew about the abuse.
Crime statistics can be affected by a number of factors, and local officials agree the rise in sex crimes cases filed locally can’t be attributed to a single cause.
Law enforcement officials say that nationwide, increased media attention has helped diminish the stigma surrounding abuse. Sex-crimes cases are regularly highlighted both through news program and crime-based TV shows, which reach a wide audience.
On the local level, police believe the presence of a victim advocate in county schools has made a difference in educating youths about sexual assault prevention and reporting. Advanced training in interview techniques and new technology for evidence-gathering has also aided investigators in developing stronger cases.
Once a case has entered the court system, local prosecutors say they work hard to hold the offender accountable, which inspires confidence in the community that victims’ voices are being heard.
In other words, experts say sex crimes have long been happening in Hancock County; the criminal justice system is now better prepared to address them.
“You better believe this community has had this problem for as long as this community has existed,” Griffin said. “The question is are we going to do something about it? And we do. If a sex crime is committed in Hancock County and investigated, it will be filed. That is the message.”