The 11 life sentences a Plaquemine man received for first-degree rape and indecent behavior with a juvenile sent a strong message on zero-tolerance against child sex offenders, but many more cases go unreported.
The Nov. 4 sentencing of Sean Wilkinson was in accordance with the laws relative to first-degree rape, along with the maximum sentence he received for indecent behavior with a juvenile. But it’s a difficult process, Iberville Parish Sheriff Brett Stassi, the current president of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association.
He credits the prosecution against Wilkinson to the expertise of the deputies.
“Whenever someone comes in and makes an accusation like this, if it’s something that happened years ago, there’s not going to be any physical evidence at all,” he said. “So, the way you handle these people and having your employees properly trained to know these people have to be brought to the advocacy center in Baton Rouge where we have a contract, and those people deal with these children and young adults who can make victim feel comfortable talking about what happened to them and fear nobody will believe them because they got away with it for so long and will get away with it … you’re going to have stuff like that.
“It’s so important … you can’t just take the report and send people home,” Stassi said. “You have to have the patience, the knowledge and the capability to do these things and find these witnesses, bring them forward. A lot of these people have multiple victims. So, to talk to victims and put together a case that can be brought to the district attorney to be prosecuted is an awesome task.”
Clayton estimated that six out of 10 cases will go unreported.
Many victims are coerced by family member to not report the abuse to authorities, he said.
“The problem with that is that a lot of families believe they can protect the child from the bad person in the family, and the tragedy of it all is that we in law enforcement will never know about it,” Clayton said. “Often, we don’t know about it until the child becomes an adult.”
A bill Gov. John Bel Edwards signed in June eliminated deadlines – previously set at 28 – for victims of child abuse to file civil lawsuits against their abusers or those who allowed the abuse to occur.
The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans, also provides a “revival window” – a period of three years for victims to file new lawsuits claims that would have already expired.
“Thank goodness for our legislature putting the laws in place that allow us to claw back and reach the predators,” Clayton said. “The legislature has empowered us with every tool we need to help family members to reach out to fight this war against crimes against kids.
“The problem, however, is that in many cases, the only person the minor can go to is his or her parents,” he said. “If the parent is the abuser, we would just have to wait for a break in that chain to find out what’s happening to that child.”
In many cases, investigators deal with victims with deep emotional scars that date back years.
Some have been victimized more than once, and by more than one perpetrator, Stassi said.
“Some of these victims may have been told to forget about it or not worry about it,” he said. “The type of people we have in the sheriff’s office deal with these types of crimes and the drive they have to solve and bring to justice the people who victimize these young people and to bring the perpetrators to trial.”
Many cases go unreported because they happen within the family, Clayton said.
“If it’s the brother or a sister and family members don’t want to see them go to jail for the rest of their lives, so it remains untouched,” he said. “That’s the tragedy of it all, and it’s highly prevalent.
“In many times, it may be an uncle or a brother-in-law, and he may be a bread winner and a source of income, and they fear the loss of the income,” Clayton said.
Often, it will be the husband or stepfather and others who don’t want to see the breakup of the family.
Fear of the family breakup often stems from the loss of income, Clayton said.
“When the mother or the guardian of the young child does a juxtaposition and juxtaposes the rights of the child with the loss of income or the breakup of the family,” he said. “They hope that the child will get over it at some point and decide to keep it hush-hush.”
He called it “a systematic problem” in a lot of homes – one that leaves victims with the pain of the attack for the rest of their lives.
Many avenues are available for help, Clayton said.
“They can tell a friend, and that friend can reach out to us, and then we can have someone in law enforcement confidentially reach out to that person or someone else in the family, at which time we can do a clandestine investigation to look into it,” he said. “But we have to receive some type of information.”
Stassi urges victims to step forward against the abusers.
“Some people might think it’s too late, but by coming forward, they may be saving another victim,” he said. “In the past, some victims were forced to live with it. Now with this law we allow the victims to become adults, get on their feet, and give them enough time to come forward and tell what really happened and if you handle this case right, you may be saving other victims.”
A lot of victims have been broken down by what has happened in their lives or may not have the stomach or backbone to step forth against their perpetrator.
A change of that culture must start in the school system, Stassi said.
“I think we need to have more counseling in the schools and more everywhere to help these victims and someone they may feel confident in calling and they might not be victims for so long,” he said. “Some of these families, more than one child in those families have been victimized.
“The District Attorney’s Office did a great job on this case, as did law enforcement,” he said. “Through more counseling and teaching in school, it’s coming out and we will be able to prosecute these offenders.”