Social interactions are part and parcel of growing up. Children often learn right and wrong, cooperation and discord, and many of life’s many lessons courtesy of those they know and trust — and unfortunately, some find themselves victim of child sexual abuse or misconduct in the process.

One in five girls and one in 20 boys are victims of child sexual abuse, according to the North Dakota Task Force on the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse. Statistics like these are not only daunting, but a reality of our criminal court systems each given day.

Law enforcement across the country have been actively rooting out sexual and child trafficking cases in increasing numbers. Due to differences in agency reporting practices, national estimates for the offenses of "child rape" and "child sexual offenses" are not available — though conservative estimates are that nearly 3 million cases occur in the United States each year.

DICKINSON POLICE DEPARTMENT

In Dickinson, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous and the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are led by Det. Sgt. Kylan Klauzer of the Dickinson Police Department.

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Klauzer works diligently on cases of this nature within the department’s Criminal Investigative Division, where cases of this nature are nothing new for the investigative team. The many unique factors involved in each case can be disheartening, but is an assignment that Klauzer and his team take to heart. The department sought out more than 30 investigations on average each year, with 32 coming last year alone.

“Education, empowering early reporting of suspicious activity and engagement with our community. Chief Dassinger’s core of his mission statement is building strong relationships within our community. These cases always take priority when they are received. Cases involving any child needs to. They are difficult cases for any family to have to deal with and we understand that, as most of us have our own families,” Klauzer noted. “We believe we have a good child protective services division (human services), good advocacy resources and quality first responder professionals to help those families in need.”

Klauzer added, “In any circumstance of this nature, these cases are difficult for any officer who is “tasked to investigate and sort through the details. Officers who are parents are especially affected by the difficulties the victim’s and their families experience during those situations.”

The groundwork for addressing child sexual abuse is a multifaceted one that involves countless individuals and entities in the community.

“We have had officers assigned to liaison positions to serve in our schools, and alongside human services and advocacy providers in our community for over a decade. These sorts groups have grown over that time as well. We also feel the community has educated themselves to a large degree through a variety of internet platforms and community outreach programs. In the same vein, they have been provided information by these entities to be better informed about this type of cases,” Klauzer said.

OTHER AGENCIES AND ADVOCATES

The Stark County Sheriff’s Office has dealt with unfortunately increasing numbers of child sexual abuse cases, growing from 7 incidents in 2018, to 15 in 2019 to 16 cases in 2020.

“Our agency treats these cases as one of the highest priorities of cases we deal with. Any crime that affects our most vulnerable we will vigorously investigate to pursue charges. Child sex and trafficking crime cases get top priority and move up the list from other lesser cases,” Lt. Eldon Mehrer of the Stark County Sheriff’s Office said.

Mehrer credits increased education encouraging youth to be more mindful about this type of behavior.

“If they experience some type of inappropriate activity they should not be afraid to come forward to tell someone. Having school resource officers (SRO) interacting with youth is helping us in detecting this type of behavior,” Mehrer said. “The relationships SRO’s are able to develop with young folks and their parents creates an atmosphere of trust which facilitates an ability for these crimes to be reported. The SRO’s can take the time to investigate leads they come across when interacting with families.”

Educator, author and activist Marie Pflugrad of Glen Ullin has been working diligently to spread her message and her own personal story about this issue for years. Her goal is to prevent child sexual abuse from happening in North Dakota. One of her main initiatives is to bring awareness in a “spotlighting” of child sexual abuse, while educating parents and caregivers — something she has dedicated two books to address.

“... That really bothers me to think that good, well-meaning places don’t even realize that even just a split second of going and stepping out to the back porch to get things, it does not take long for a child to be molested. And a perpetrator is no respecter of persons and some people think that even in a church setting or a place where there may be cameras, trust me, cameras don’t work. It’s a good thing to have after the fact because then you can report what you saw. But the damage is done,” Plfugrad said, explaining, “Perpetrators are very well versed at what they’re doing and they are opportunists. So they seek out the vulnerable; they find out which one they can hone in on.”

It’s important to look out for red flags when leaving children with caregivers or other relatives, Pflugrad said.

“We’re not trying to cause distrust. What we’re trying to get kids to know is that what happened to me was there is a big difference between Uncle Bill or Uncle Fred that comes up and smacks you on the leg and goes, ‘How you doin’ sweetie?’ There’s playfulness there versus the Uncle Fred that comes and touches your leg and it creeps up the thigh. Pretty soon you’re going in places you should not be and a kid is terrified. They don’t know what to do,” Pfulgrad added.

THE JUDICIAL SYSTEM

Even one incident of child sexual abuse is an issue, Stark County Assistant State’s Attorney Amanda Engelstad noted.

Since 2019, the state’s attorney office has had 19 “unique adult defendants charged with a felony sexual offense.” Though there have been some who have committed multiple infractions. These crimes are not only “hands on” sexual abuse felonies, but include luring a child by electronic means, possession of child pornography and/or production of child pornography, Engelstad clarified.

“These are only charged offenses and not necessarily cases that ended in a conviction. Some of these defendants may still have open cases or be awaiting trial or sentencing,” Engelstad said.

Though the numbers of these types of cases are not as drastic on the Western Edge as in other more populated cities in the state and nationwide, it is still important to educate youth on what is appropriate and not appropriate, Engelstad said, adding that if something like this were to happen, it should not come across as shameful for a child to bring it to the attention of an adult they trust.

“I think that children are being taught at a younger age what is an ‘ok’ or ‘normal’ touch and what is not ok. I think parents are also having more open and honest conversations with their children that if someone does touch them inappropriately that it isn’t shameful and that the child isn’t in trouble,” Engelstad said. “I think parents are also more willing to come forward when they believe something has happened to their child. I think all of these things, plus other factors, are leading to more incidents of child sexual abuse being reported.

“Additionally, I think that our technology is such now that some individuals that are viewing or downloading child pornography are getting flagged and investigated and charged more quickly. There are many skilled individuals in local and federal jurisdictions whose sole law enforcement focus is investigating these types of crimes.”

In the North Dakota criminal justice system, child sexual abuse felonies carry extensive punishments and range from years of supervised probation to a sentence of nearly a decade in prison. A convicted felon of these crimes will most likely be required to register as a sexual offender, for life.

“It is dependent on many factors: prior criminal history; results of a psychosexual examination; wishes of victim and parents; strength of evidence; whether the case is elevated to a federal level or stays in the state’s jurisdiction; if there was any violence; how long the sexual abuse has been occurring; and if there are any mandatory minimum sentencing requirements. This is not an exhaustive list, but all of these factors do play a part in what the state will recommend as far as sentencing,” Engelstad said.

CONTRIBUTING FACTORS AND PREVENTION

Alcohol and/or drug abuse by a parent/caregiver and domestic violence in a household are all underlying factors that contribute or increase the likelihood that a child sexual assault occurs, Mehrer noted.

“Every situation is unique and is treated as such, but common underlying factors do exist. We are not immune from the risk factors in our area. That being said, alcohol/drug abuse, social and economic status should never be seen as an excuse or explanation to exploit or mistreat children in any way,” Mehrer firmly cautioned.

As a law enforcement officer, one of the main goals for Mehrer when he approaches a scene of this nature is to provide the most transparency to those victims and their families and that perpetrators will be brought to justice. A Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), which consists of law enforcement, social services, medical personnel, child advocates and prosecuting attorneys, aid in these situations of sexual assault and trafficking as well.

With more children at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is potentially a greater threat of child sexual assault or misconduct — some of which goes unreported. Some children are left alone with older siblings or caregivers.

“Through our different methods of contact in 2020, it’s important to find ways to stay involved in what’s going on with families people may be concerned about. Again, every family's dynamics are slightly unique,” Klauzer said. “It’s important for anyone close to families to pay attention to the baselines of behavior in children they may be worried about, and always let law enforcement and child protective services know if there is suspicion of criminal activity against the children in the household.”

As a community, protecting children during these unprecedented times means more engagement and activities within the constraints of the COVID-19 mandates and restrictions. Mehrer encourages parents to not put their children in any type of risky situation or with unknown people, cautioning the crucial nature of knowing exactly who your child is socializing with. Mehrer reminded parents to monitor all social media accounts and personal electronic devices, as luring children by digital means is among the fastest growing methodologies employed by abusers.

“If you suspect any type of activity address it with law enforcement. Keep an open line of communication with your children. Teach your children to push back against any type of unwanted or inappropriate conduct and to tell a parent or another adult. It’s ok to tell someone,” he said.

Engelstad added, “Additionally, I think that close supervision with strict boundaries for the offender after conviction and/or release from any sentence of incarceration along with sexual offender treatment is a key component to reduction. It is also my belief that should an individual that is out of custody on probation or parole not be in compliance with his probation and parole that revocation should be swift.”

“This is a complex issue that goes far beyond the criminal justice system in terms of mitigation. We could look at social media, access to pornographic websites, childhood trauma and many other factors that likely play a role in why these abhorrent crimes against children are committed.”

Look for the second part of the Child Sexual Abuse series next Wednesday, which will focus on raising awareness of the issue and feature commentary from leaders in those efforts.