Officials: Waco area sees recent rash of sex crimes against children

by Erin Quinn
Tribune-Herald staff writer
June 3, 2009
Waco Tribune-Herald

The year isn’t half over, and the Waco area has seen more than 20 people charged in sex crimes against children. Among those, a Bellmead pastor, two teachers and a Baylor University student.

And Monday, a 27-year-old former Brazos Middle School teacher pleaded guilty in McLennan County district court to 10 counts of sexual assault of a child. The victim was a 14-year-old male student. She will be sentenced July 26.

While it seems like there’s been a constant stream of these horrific crimes, the reality for the local professionals who work these cases is that it’s always that bad.

In recent years, as the topic has become less taboo, police departments have allocated more resources in terms of detectives and victims advocates, and legislators have increased punishments, agencies say they are seeing more of these types of crimes reported.

Still, recent statistics show just 10 percent of the sexual abuse against children is actually reported, said Melody Zuniga, forensic interviewer with the Advocacy Center for crime victims and children in Waco.

She said studies show that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they turn 18.

“So, when you look at the graduating class at Midway High School, for example, and you look at those 600 kids, 100 or 200 of those kids could have been sexually abused,” Zuniga said. “And we have to think that’s a very conservative estimate.”

When an outcry of abuse is made — be it by a child, parent, educator, neighbor — the child is examined by a sexual assault nurse examiner if the alleged abuse is thought to have happened within 96 hours of reporting the crime. Those exams can be conducted at a hospital or in the Advocacy Center.

The majority of cases that come into the system, said Waco police Sgt. Kraig Disney, are a delayed outcry.

A large majority of the children are abused by family members or close friends of the family, said Kelly Knox, a social worker at the Advocacy Center.

In that case, a Child Protective Service worker is called in to investigate.

“It’s not at all uncommon for one report of abuse to open a door for others in the family to come forward with stories of their own abuse,” said Vincent Jones, an investigator with CPS out of Waco. “The victims will say, ‘We hadn’t realized it’s wrong until now.’ ”

And the warning signs can be difficult to notice.

“The scary thing is that there aren’t always physical symptoms,” Knox said. “It’s a silent crime.”

In Waco alone, there were 16 reports of sexual abuse in the last five years in which the victims were infants, Waco police statistics show. Knox said abuse, in this case, is often spotted by mothers changing their baby’s diaper. She said the baby might have a sexually transmitted disease, labial adhesions or an unexplained rash.

If a child victim is old enough to talk, a forensic interviewer, such as Zuniga, will talk with the child in a comfortable, living room-style room in the Advocacy Center. In the room is a darkened glass window, through which detectives, victims advocates and CPS workers watch. The interview also is recorded.

“We try to limit the amount of times a child has to tell his/her story,” Disney said. “The goal is to do it once.”

Disney said the process for a child, in that respect, has greatly improved in the last 15 years.

Woodway Police Chief Yost Zakhary, whose department recently arrested a 24-year-old Lorena teacher and coach on charges he had sex with a 14-year-old student, said the improvements are allowing more victims to come forward.

“Law enforcement is doing a better job looking into these, so people are becoming more trusting of law enforcement,” Zakhary said. “We’re going to start seeing more of these types of cases because people are realizing that the system does protect them.”

In turn, this trust has, in part, resulted in stiffer punishments for convicted offenders, said Assistant McLennan County District Attorney Beth Toben, who prosecutes the majority of cases involving sex crimes against children.

“I think jurors are becoming a little less skeptical and cynical in these kinds of cases than they used to be,” she said. “They’re more willing to believe the kid than they were in the past. And a lot of that is because the quality of the investigations have gotten better through the years.”

And those convicted are being put away for longer. Someone convicted of a charge such as continuous sexual abuse of a child, as of 2007, could not be released on parole.

The most notable hefty sentence came in April,when a 30-year-old Waco man received eight life sentences and a fine of $80,000 for the sexual assault of a Waco girl during a 10-month period.

Another jury sentenced a 52-year-old man to life in prison and a fine of $20,000 for the repeated sexual assault of a girl from ages 6 to 12.

Toben said her case load seems to be expanding. The court docket is booked nearly every week with sex crimes against children cases.

And Zuniga’s job doesn’t seem to be getting easier either. She estimated that she’s interviewed 900 children since 2006 at the Advocacy Center.

And those are only the victims that can talk.

“You’ve got to have some hope that if they’re coming here, the abuse is stopped, and they can begin to heal,” she said. “But we know that there are so many who haven’t come forward and are being abused every day.

“We see the ugly in society here. But you have to have hope.”