Editor's note: This is the second in a four-part series on child sexual abuse. On Monday, the Aiken Standard looks at child sexual abuse education in the public schools and at home.
Allegations of child sexual abuse spark multiple courses of action. There are investigations to determine if the accusations are true and steps are taken to protect the child who is involved. If enough evidence supporting the allegations is found, prosecuting the suspected molester becomes a priority.
“It starts with law enforcement and the case that law enforcement puts together for us,” said Ashley Agnew, an assistant solicitor in the Second Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office. “The Child Advocacy Center of Aiken County contributes information as well. We are very fortunate that we have some agencies that are able to develop very complete cases in difficult situations.”
Local child sexual abuse cases are tried in the Court of General Sessions.
“We've had some success in the past several months,” Agnew said.
In April, a jury found Harold B. Cartwright III of Trenton guilty of raping three girls and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Last December, William Wallace Pou of Aiken was sentenced to 30 years in prison after a jury determined that he was guilty of multiple child sex abuse charges.
“There are some unique issues in these types of cases,” Agnew said. “It has been popularized in crime shows on TV that you look for fingerprints and all this evidence that you can pick up and hold and touch and see. But in sexual assault cases, we oftentimes don't have that kind of evidence. A lot of the time it's a 'he said, she said' case, especially with children. You don't always have obvious injuries that anyone can see. You don't always get DNA that is going to match the perpetrator's DNA beyond all doubt. A lot of the times, it's just the testimony of a child because these crimes don't take place in broad daylight in front of people. These are crimes of isolation that occur in secret.”
The youth of the victims also is an important issue.
“Under the law, defendants have the right to confront their accusers, so the children have to be able to testify for you to go to trial,” Agnew said. “But if you go to trial, you're subjecting the victims to reliving the worst, most painful, terrifying moments of their lives in front of a courtroom full of strangers.”
In deciding how to handle sexual abuse cases, the welfare of the children involved and their ages are key considerations.
“We've had children as young as 5 or 6 testify,” Agnew said. “But many times, the parents, for good reasons, don't want to put their children through all that. One of the things we consider in trying to resolve cases is what's best for everyone. Sometimes the best solution is a guilty plea and part of that may be letting the defendant plead guilty to a lesser charge and receive a slightly lesser sentence.”
But resolving child sexual abuse cases that way usually isn't easy, according to Agnew.
“The problem is that you don't have many defendants readily willing to plead guilty because there are so many consequences to having a conviction like this in their criminal history,” Agnew said. “A person may be faced with registering as a sex offender or being on a child abuse registry. There is such a stigma associated with child sexual abuse. People are much less willing to admit to hurting a child than they would be admitting to other types of crimes.”
The Department of Social Services in Aiken County is another agency that takes action when there are allegations of child abuse, but only under certain circumstances.
“We investigate allegations when they are made against someone who is the child's parent or is acting in the role of a parent,” said Christine Wright, who is the director of the Aiken County Department of Social Services. “We also get involved when a parent knows about an allegation of sexual abuse and is not protective of the child.”
The Department of Social Services cases that involve child abuse are heard in Aiken County Family Court.
“The Solicitor's Office has to prove its cases beyond a reasonable doubt,” Wright said. “But we only have to prove that it is more likely than not that sexual abuse has occurred.”
Making sure youngsters are safe after sexual abuse allegations have been made is a priority for the Department of Social Services.
“We look for a solution that is the least disruptive for the child,” Wright said. “We want the perpetrator to be out of the child's home, and if there is a nonoffending parent who will meet the child's needs, we will place the child with him or her. But if that isn't an option, we will look for a relative or a close family friend who is be able to be the caregiver. The last option would be foster care placement, and that's done in coordination with Family Court or law enforcement.”
Other actions taken by the Department of Social Services can include making treatment plans for the child, nonoffending parent and/or perpetrator.
If there is a finding of sexual abuse in family court or criminal court, the molester's name can be placed in The Central Registry of Child Abuse and Neglect. South Carolina's Department of Social Services maintains the statewide list.
• Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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