Sex assault on a child by a person in a position of trust is nothing new. Not in Douglas County, not anywhere else in the U.S.
However, dating back to last summer, there have been four high-profile cases making their way through the 18th Judicial District Court in Castle Rock, involving three Douglas County School District teachers and a Highlands Ranch youth pastor.
All four men in question — ranging in age from 26 to 41 — have been charged with or already pleaded guilty to some degree of inappropriate sexual contact on teenage children under their supervision and guidance.
Deputy District Attorney Chris Gallo, who specializes in cases involving crimes against children for the 18th, has been the lead prosecutor in all four cases. What may be most disturbing, he said, is that for every high-profile case, there are a dozen other cases that he prosecutes involving these types of crimes.
“We’ve had a ton of others where we have charged a person in a position of trust who wasn’t a (leader) in the community,” Gallo said. “Whether it was a neighbor, an uncle, a stepfather, this abuse happens across economic lines, across social lines.”
And while there appears to be an inordinate number of these crimes surfacing in the county lately, neither Gallo, District Attorney George Brauchler, nor Douglas County Sheriff’s Detective Mike Duffy sees an indication that there are more of these types of crimes per capita now than before.
“I think in part, the stigma is slowly being taken away from this,” Brauchler said. He emphasized that more children who are victimized are seeing that the courts are not always going to side with the adult, and with that,more victims are feeling empowered to come forward.
“What I would hope the community takes from this,” he said, “is that we fight these cases maybe a little more aggressively than some of these other communities.”
Duffy, one of five detectives on the DCSO Special Victims Unit that focuses on Internet and sexual assault crimes against children, also pointed to the county’s population boom as a factor in more cases turning up recently.
“Increase in population is always going to increase your numbers,” he said. “The more schools you have, the more chances you have for these types of crimes occurring. It’s purely statistical.”
That said, Duffy agreed that this is far from a recent problem in Douglas County.
“I think that there is an increase of reporting (by victims) and an increase of attention being paid to the problem,” he said. “There’s been a bit of a culture change.”
On average, Duffy said, the DCSO Special Victims Unit juggles anywhere from 10 to 20 cases at a time. Depending on whether the abuse is ongoing or has ceased, an investigation could take days or months to complete.
Disclosing takes time
While more victims have been coming forward in recent years, there are many still hiding in the shadows, and sometimes it can take years to speak out.
Gallo said he has encountered adults who have come forward and disclosed things that happened to them in the 1970s, people who now have children of their own, who are finally ready to talk about what they experienced 40 years ago.
“We are becoming more aware of the world we’ve always lived in, and that’s an ugly thing,” he said. “But it’s better to be aware of it and try to protect people than say, ‘we live in this shiny beacon of a community and no child molesters live here.’ There will always be ugliness, but only when you are aware of it can you do something about it.”
Knowing how to handle the situation if your child comes forward to you or someone else after being sexually assaulted is also an important thing, Duffy said.
“If you think your child has been victimized by any kind of inappropriate sexual behavior, do not handle it yourself, contact us and let us handle it,” he said. “There is still a little bit of a culture out there that these cases are impossible to prosecute, but we will work very diligently to investigate the case and advocate on their behalf.”
Duffy said it can be tough on parents if their children disclose to someone else, but he said it is very commonplace, especially in familial cases, that children do not want to hurt their parents by telling them.
“It can take years before a child feels comfortable coming to their parent, and that is not always a reflection of the parents,” he said. “It is just a difficult thing to talk about. Even in the greatest atmosphere, it often takes time before a child is ready.”
Hope for recovery?
The Colorado Sex Offender Management Board reports that as of April 1, there were 15,848 registered sex offenders in the state, 1,400 of whom are currently participating in the state’s intensive supervision program.
Of those, said Colorado state probation analyst Angela Weant, 46 percent are successfully doing everything that is asked of them in their probation, and most of the probation offenses that are occurring are minor infractions.
While it is not unusual to see a repeat offender reported on in the news media or to see a first-time defendant who committed multiple offenses before being caught, Weant said in her experience the extreme majority of offenders in Colorado do not repeat. As a former probation officer who carried a caseload of 80 sex offenders, she said only once did she have someone “fall off the wagon and slip up.”
“It’s the ones you don’t know about that are out there operating, being secretive and manipulative, that are grooming their victims to withhold information, that you have to worry about,” she said. “They are premeditating their crimes for years and years.
“The ones in the system are the safer ones. There is a lot of stigma for the people that have been convicted, as well as financial burden and upheaval. A lot of them have to move because if they have kids they aren’t allowed to be around them anymore.”
Weant will be the first to tell you that you can’t change the mindset of a sex offender overnight, and Gallo agrees.
“It’s tough,” he said. “You have to totally restructure the way people think. There are people constantly breaking themselves of that lifestyle and, relative to what they did, they don’t need to be in prison for the rest of their lives. Yet there are others, where the gravity of what they did is so significant, you’re not going to ever change that.”