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Prosecutors have eyes trained on sex crime cases

Shining a light on sex crimes, Part I

Series: 1 | Story 1

February 5, 2021

In December, former Carlton girls basketball coach Robert Pioro pleaded guilty to four counts of felony third-degree criminal sexual conduct stemming from a sexual relationship with an athlete some 20 years ago.

Two weeks ago, another girls basketball coach was arrested on similar charges with a 17-year-old girl on his team this year, a case that is only beginning to wind its way through the courts to an unknown conclusion. Those charges came only a week after the arrest of a Cloquet man for first-degree sexual conduct with a 15-year-old girl.

Such cases aren't new. There have been books, "Lolita," for example, written about sex between older men and girls, sometimes romanticizing what happens. But things are changing - and were even before the Me Too movement - and the perpetrators of such assaults are being prosecuted successfully, even when the actions occurred more than 20 years before.

Even if a teenager appears to willingly have sex with a person who is 15, 20, or 30 years older, it's not truly consensual, according to Tracie Clanaugh. She is the director of First Witness Child Advocacy Center in Duluth.

First Witness provides a safe place for victims of child sexual and physical abuse to tell their stories, working with the youngest of children through age 17.

"Children will cooperate with an offender," Clanaugh said. "But it's important to know that a child isn't in a position to consent. Adults have power over them, adults are in positions of power that cause them (children) to potentially cooperate, but that's different than consensual sex."

While the cases mentioned above involve teenage girls, Carlton County attorney Lauri Ketola has made prosecution of all sex cases a high priority.

"I look at crimes that have the greatest impact in a person's life and in a community," said Ketola, now in her third year in office. "So a sex crime is not just that act, it's everything, all the fallout of that, the rest of your life. Are you as productive, do you need more services? I've known enough people that have been victims of child sexual abuse, I've seen what that has meant for the rest of their lives.

"I think it's a whole cultural thing, and we have to understand that this is unacceptable."

A team approach

While the Carlton County Attorney's Office isn't actively seeking out such cases, they have a team of trained people from a variety of disciplines who monitor the initial interviews with someone reporting a sexual assault. Law enforcement, county attorneys, social workers, investigators and interviewers all work together.

"We're doing a better job on the front end to get the right information to find out if a claim is valid and if it can be corroborated, so I think we'll be probably charging more out because of how we're interviewing kids," Ketola said.

Those interviews take place at First Witness. While Carlton County had worked with First Witness in the past, it was 2019 when a multidisciplinary team formed in the county and made a commitment to bring all child sexual abuse cases there.

At First Witness, the staff are trained to ensure both the child and the family are feeling comfortable. The setting is child-friendly. They have an interview protocol that ensures they follow the child's narrative - not leading them in any way - in a coordinated effort with the multidisciplinary team.

When an alleged case of sexual abuse comes forward, the child and the non-offending caregiver or guardian come to First Witness for a forensic interview, and meet with an advocate who will work with them as they go through that day and throughout the rest of the case. Depending on the case, there may be a medical examination, or referrals to other services (such as counseling) that may be needed.

"As the advocate, I will often reach out to the caregiver before they come to the center," said Kylee Pass, advocate and trainer at First Witness. "That's where the relationship starts." Once they come in, the family is assigned an advocate; if the victim is an adolescent, they get their own advocate in addition to the family advocate. The advocate is there for the victim's support, not as a member of the larger team.

"What advocacy looks like during investigations is being there for emotional support," Pass said. "Adolescents can talk to their advocate if they're having emotional struggles or just needing someone to debrief with, process with. I also get to be that person that gives them reminders that this 'isn't your fault and you know what happened to you was something that someone else did.'"

Only one person - a specially trained interviewer - sits with the alleged victim in the interview room when it's time, but the entire team observes the recorded interview live, and can direct questions to the interviewer through an earpiece.

"From the get-go, the multidisciplinary team approach ensures that everybody is hearing the same thing, everybody is having the opportunity to ask additional questions, if they would like to, for their own investigation," Clanaugh said.

Each of them - law enforcement and the social worker/child protective services worker - are doing their own investigation.

"So they may have different questions, but that's handled from the very beginning. And the biggest thing is that the child only has to tell their story, once, to that interviewer. ... In another community where that multidisciplinary approach isn't used, a child potentially has to tell their most traumatic story to several people in potentially several different places, places that might be scary to a child," Clanaugh said.

Law enforcement

Carlton County sheriff Kelly Lake works with the multidisciplinary team, along with Lt. Dan Danielson. So do other Carlton County law enforcement agencies, including Cloquet, Fond du Lac and Moose Lake.

Lake said there have been some important changes in the way law enforcement responds to and treats alleged sex crimes. Some of the most significant changes are in the areas of forensic evidence collection and testing - think DNA and other physical evidence - and the department's ability to corroborate certain aspects of a sexual assault allegation through digital and social media records, as well as the manner in which juvenile victims are interviewed.

"Our partnership with the First Witness Child Advocacy Center allows us to obtain legally sound, defensible victim statements in a consistent and unbiased manner," Lake said. "It also provides victims and their families with immediate access to advocates who will assist them throughout the legal process."

When the Sheriff's Office receives a report of alleged sexual assault, it sets in motion a response from criminal investigators, victim advocates, forensic interviewers, forensic scientists, and attorneys, Lake said.

The actual decision to pursue charges does not lie with law enforcement.

"We gather all the facts that we can gather, all the evidence we can gather and present that to the attorney's office so they can look at everything that's available and make that tough decision," Danielson said.

In instances like the Pioro case that go back years, they look for details in the interviews with the alleged victim and others who knew them at the time, piecing together the different things people remember.

"Sometimes you find people who make mental notes of these things and are waiting for that day when someone knocks on their door and says, 'hey, what do you think' and, boy, the floodgates open and you get new information that you didn't know about. You just have to do your due diligence."

Their job is to gather and verify the information, but not with a particular agenda.

"You never know what will be valuable to either side of the case," he said. "It might exonerate somebody, be inculpatory or exculpatory. We're looking to get to the bottom of it either way."

Thanks to the continued changes in technology and process, if the decision is made to charge a case, the chances of a successful prosecution are pretty good.

"Our forensic interviews are legally defensible," Clanaugh said. "We have a public defender, and our multidisciplinary teams to ensure that as we are talking to children, we are getting corroborating evidence, details. That's where the team comes in, they know the questions that need to be asked to ferret out an allegation."

"It's important for the child and the alleged offender to have a process that draws out what really happened - that's good for both parties," the First Witness director added.

Ketola said she hopes by making prosecution of sex crimes a high priority, there will be a continued cultural shift around sex crimes.

"If someone is willing to make a report and it's prosecuted, and prosecuted successfully, and someone else is sitting at home reading it or seeing it and realizes, 'that happened to me,' maybe that person will come forward too," she said.

This is a continuing series. Look for more on the subject in next week's Pine Knot News.


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