“I don’t know what it is about the water in Lincoln County, but I’ve never worked in an agency, a community that had so many child sex crimes,” said Lieutenant Andy Binder, public information officer for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s been going on since 2006 when I started working here. We just had a high number of child sex crimes committed in this county…and even though we have excellent conviction rates and we let the community know who’s doing this and how this is happening – we still have a lot. It’s a great question, it’s one of those unsolved mysteries. I mean we solve the crimes, but the meaning behind it…why?”
There are 200 registered sex offenders in Lincoln County currently, many of which committed offenses in the worst category of the crime. Compared to St. Charles County, which has nearly seven times the population of Lincoln County, St. Charles has a drastically lower population of sex offenders per-capita, one per 1,000 people, versus Lincoln County’s one per 280.
Seventy percent of the crimes investigated by the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office are sex crimes, and 90 percent of those are related to children.
Because of this volume, Binder said the Sheriff’s Office has multiple detectives specialized in working these crimes. Many tips will come from school districts or children’s services, and for the detective the first step in investigating is to schedule the child for a forensic interview.
Once a child finishes their interview, the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) in Wentzville requires each county it services to form what they call a Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) which often includes law enforcement, a prosecutor, child services, the forensic interviewer and any other agencies needed to ensure the child’s case is properly investigated and tried.
Amy Robins, supervisor of Forensic Services at the CAC, stated that she believed Lincoln County’s high number of sex cases are actually the result of the general community improving in how they handle these complicated cases. She shared that in 2013, an assistant prosecutor, Casey Brooks, put a lot of effort into improving how Lincoln County’s MDT worked by mimicking methods used in St. Charles. Brooks specialized in the best way to prosecute the cases and pushed other agencies in the county to improve and educate themselves on how to recognize, handle and investigate child sex crimes – including the school districts.
“I applaud Lincoln County for continuing to bring it to the forefront, and I don’t think they’re any different from any other county. They may have a higher number of registered sex offenders, but there is nothing different happening in Lincoln County,” Robin said.
She said some other counties the CAC serves have MDTs that lack prosecutors who are informed on how to handle child sex cases in court, have law enforcement agencies with no specialized training on how to investigate the crimes and suffer from a more general lack of communication.
However, while she said they still have communication kinks to work on, Robins had mostly praise for the Lincoln County MDT.
“Mike Wood’s office has taken a very aggressive stance on specifically crimes against children, and him and his team are extremely aggressive in charging these cases which is so helpful to the community,” Robin said. “And of those cases we definitely see more charged than are turned away, and I would say St. Charles and Lincoln County are kind of top-notch across the state in regards to their charging decisions and what they expect from their MDT, specifically their detectives to gather and to do for these cases.”
Both the sheriff’s department and Troy Police Department have officers specially trained in investigating these cases, and other smaller departments are encouraged to get help from a state agency called STAT that can train officers on how to investigate child sex crimes or come in and do an investigation for them.
“It is more difficult to investigate a crime against a child than any other case you could have – even a homicide,” Robin said. “Because there are no witnesses and your crime scene is typically years old, because kids wait forever to tell.”
She also said that the Lincoln County R-III School District had all their staff attend training offered by the CAC, and that the Lincoln County Resource Board is one of the CAC’s donors.
She maintained that Lincoln County’s higher numbers of child sex crimes are a result of the improvements the county has made in finding and then successfully investigating and charging those types of crimes.
However, records provided by the CAC from 2013, which would have been right before Casey Brooks helped start improving Lincoln County’s methods, show that even then Lincoln County still had more children coming to the center than surrounding counties – with 93 kids when the population was around 54,000 (one child per 580 people). In 2013, Warren County had 37 kids visit while the population was around 33,000 and St. Charles County with a population of 374,000 had 134 kids.
At this point, a hard answer to Binder’s question of “why” isn’t clear.
National statistics state that one in four girls and one in six boys under the age of 18 will be the victim of sexual abuse. Robins shared that while they cover 14 counties, the Wentzville CAC manages four counties directly: St. Charles, Lincoln, Montgomery and Warren. So far in 2019, those four counties have had 340 children do forensic interviews. Robins said that 70 percent of their cases are referred to as an “accidental expose,” meaning kids did not intend to expose their victimization. In almost every case, the alleged perpetrator was someone the child was close to, either a parent, relative, parent’s boy/girlfriend, a step parent, or another person known by the family.
“It’s everywhere, across all demographic regions, all races, all ethnicities, all socioeconomic status, it doesn’t matter. No one’s kids are safe, it doesn’t matter which community you live in it’s not safe from these crimes.” Robin said.
However, there are preventive measures that can be taken. County agencies continue to dedicate themselves to fighting for justice for children who are victimized.
“Part of our goal moving forward is to try to educate parents and educate the community as to signs to look for that may lead someone to believe that abuse is occurring,” Prosecuting Attorney Mike Wood said. “And education is a major part of our preventative measures moving forward.”
The CAC offers a three-week course in Lincoln County for parents to teach them how their choices can reduce the chance of their child becoming a victim.
“Most parents are afraid to have that conversation about touches and body safety, and we say talk about it early and talk about it often. By the age of 3, you should be teaching the correct names for the private parts of their body, not nicknames,” said Robin. “And you should be talking to them that no one should touch or look at their private parts of their body and that you’re kinda the boss of your body, is how we explain it to kids.”
As a child gets older, Robin said parents should explain that it’s the people a child is familiar with who could potentially hurt them, and that it’s okay to tell if something happens. If someone suspects a child they know is being abused in any way, they can call the Missouri Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-392-3738.
“If most people just followed [their] gut to make those calls and to follow that suspicion if they think something’s happening, we would be able to protect and help a lot more children,” Robin said. She also shared the importance of being willing to stand up for and believe in kids.
“We don’t lose many cases as MDT, but even the cases where they see an acquittal in a case, it is not that the kids walk away thinking ‘oh my god, we just lost this case,’” Robin said. “It is with the perspective of ‘of my gosh, look at everyone who came to support me, and I was heard, and I got to say what happened to me,’ and you have that team of people who kinda wrap their arms around that child and family to support them. The verdict doesn’t matter to kids, it’s everything else.”
For more resources and education about child sex crimes and how to prevent them, visit thechildcenter.com.