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Inaction can't be the rule on suspected abuse

Shining a light on sex crimes, Part III


February 19, 2021

When the news broke last year that former Carlton basketball coach Robert Pioro was being charged with sexually abusing one of his players nearly 20 years ago, there were people who immediately identified his victim. They’d seen the red flags or wondered about the relationship, but never knew for sure.

That’s the nature of sexual abuse. It doesn’t usually occur in the open. It’s hidden between abuser and victim, specifically so people don’t see it. So when there are red flags, people need to pay attention to those niggling worries and red flags. Especially those — including teachers, coaches, medical professionals and ministers — who are mandated reporters. But really anyone who’s suspicious should take the time to make the call, Carlton County attorney Lauri Ketola said.

In most cases, someone else does know, Ketola said. It may be a best friend pinky-sworn to secrecy, or an older family member — even a mother, afraid to lose her own relationship with the abuser — or someone else close to the family or the abuser.

During Pioro’s sentencing on Feb. 5, prosecuting attorney Jeffrey Boucher said there was a community failure in that case from the early 2000s.

“The state was struck by person after person saying something is suspicious, that they’re not surprised to find out something was going on. But then nobody did anything.” That’s a failure of the community, he said.

“Despite the failure of the community to protect one of its children back then, only Mr. Pioro committed this abuse and only Mr. Pioro is subject to your honor’s sentence,” Boucher told Sixth District judge Robert Macaulay during the hearing.

For her part, the survivor of that abuse — whom we will identify only by her initials, K.M. — says she isn’t angry with those people for not reporting what they suspected all those years ago to the authorities. But she does wonder how her life would be different if someone had done something.

She acknowledges the effect that failure had on her younger self.

“The shame I feel is compounded by the fact that people suspected and did nothing to stop it,” K.M. told the court. “As I struggle with believing that I was a child that was groomed, manipulated, and abused, what my mind concludes is that if people knew and did nothing to help me, he must not have been doing something wrong after all. I’ve thought, maybe I did do something wrong. Maybe there is something wrong with me.”

Ketola talked about a book about bullying by Frank Peretti, “The Wounded Spirit,” in which he says the adults who watched someone being bullied and never intervened were almost worse, because the message they sent to him was that he didn’t deserve to be protected.

“It’s one thing to be victimized. And then for people to watch that happen and not do anything ... then the message is that they [the abuser] are not doing anything wrong,” Ketola said.


If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to protect a child.

Ketola wants to make sure what happened to K.M. — suspicions that go unreported — doesn’t happen again. Even if people aren’t certain, if they just have a suspicion, they should call law enforcement (911) or child protection (218-499-6315).

“I’d rather have somebody report something and have us look into it and go, ‘oh, there’s nothing going on there,’” Ketola said.

Anyone can voluntarily report suspicions that a child is being abused.

An entire team of people looks into each reported case, Ketola said. In 2019, a multidisciplinary team was formed to focus on sex abuse cases in Carlton County, made up of law enforcement officials from each jurisdiction in the county, attorneys, social workers, investigators and interviewers who work together on every case. They start with a video-recorded interview at First Witness in Duluth, conducted by a professional interviewer in a child-friendly environment.

There’s another reason she wants people to share their suspicions with someone. Because even though one person’s suspicions may not result in action, several reports may spark further investigation.

“Maybe there’s something going on at school, but it’s not enough to rise to the level of maltreatment,” she said. “But then someone on the team says, ‘That’s interesting, because somebody reported to us they were concerned about inappropriate touching,’ and then a doctor says there have been several visits. Sometimes it takes a number of reports, as we get a larger picture, we realize there’s something going on here.”

They don’t end up prosecuting every case. Ketola said that of 60 cases referred to her office since taking office in January 2019, they have declined to prosecute 28, and 27 cases are pending with another five convictions, Pioro among them. Thirteen out of the 60 cases were juvenile offenders.

Those cases are referred to the county attorney’s office from all over the county, from police in the cities of Cloquet and Moose Lake and the Fond du Lac reservation, and from the Carlton County Sheriff’s Office. Each of those agencies has an officer who serves on the multidisciplinary team. They each get calls about criminal sexual conduct: for example, the Carlton County Sheriff’s Office had 12 calls in 2018, 18 in 2019, 10 in 2020 and one so far in 2021.

Law enforcement and social services both conduct their own investigations, and law enforcement will tell the county attorney’s office if they think there is a basis to charge. Then, once it gets to Ketola and her assistant county attorneys, they have to decide if it meets the standards of probable cause and whether or not they can be successful at trial.

“We have to prove it beyond reasonable doubt, so my standard is significantly higher than just making a charge,” Ketola said.

It took from November 2019 to the following July before charges were filed against Pioro. It was a long time for K.M. to wait after making her report, but she understood it takes time for investigations, especially when a crime is 20 years old.

Ketola said people who are worried about red flags but also worried about accusing an innocent person should know that it takes evidence to go from a report to a criminal case. She stressed that just because something is reported, it doesn’t always mean it gets charged.

“I have as much interest in not prosecuting people that haven’t committed any wrong. That’s my job too,” Ketola said. “I’m not a vigilante. My objective is justice. No more do I want an innocent person prosecuted than I want a guilty person to not be held accountable.”

Mandated reporters

While philosophically most people agree all adults in a community should strive to keep children safe from abusers and voluntarily report their suspicions, there is a certain group of people who are required by law to report suspected child abuse. They are called mandated reporters.

In 1975, the Minnesota Legislature enacted a statute mandating that certain people report the maltreatment of minors. The statute has been amended several times since it was originally enacted, but its purpose has not changed: The legislature declared that “the public policy of the state is to protect children whose health or welfare may be jeopardized through maltreatment.”

There are basically two requirements under the mandated reporter statute:

1. A person must know or have reason to believe a child is being “maltreated” or has been maltreated in the preceding three years.

2. That person works as a professional or a professional’s delegate “engaged in the practice of the healing arts, social services, hospital administration, psychological or psychiatric treatment, child care, education, correctional supervision, probation and correctional services, or law enforcement,” or employed as a member of the clergy (although there are additional restrictions related to clergy).

The rules around mandated reporting are also outlined by the state.

A mandated reporter must report suspected maltreatment of a child, including both the direct observations of such abuse or neglect (e.g., personally seeing physical injury to a child) and indirect information that gives the mandated reporter reason to believe a child is being maltreated.

The law requires a mandated reporter to make an immediate oral report (meaning within 24 hours) of the maltreatment to the child protection agency of the county (or tribal agency), or law enforcement where the abuse or neglect is believed to have occurred. The oral report should be followed by a written report within 72 hours by a report to the same entity. The report should identify the child, any person believed to be responsible for the maltreatment of the child if known, the nature and extent of the maltreatment, and the name and address of the reporter. The name of the reporter is confidential, and can be disclosed only with the consent of the reporter or if a court finds that the report was false and made in bad faith.

The law also provides a reporter with immunity from civil and criminal liability for making a voluntary or mandated report if they act in good faith. In other words, filing a truthful report based upon observations or information obtained from others will not expose the reporter to civil liability or criminal charges, even if it is later determined that no abuse had occurred. Additionally, an employer cannot retaliate against an employee for making a mandated report.

Many county employees are mandated reporters, Ketola wrote in a recent countywide email regarding mandated reporters. That includes social workers, law enforcement, public health nurses, county attorneys, probation officers, child support officers and even professional workers in the employment and economic assistance department.

Ketola said she has made prosecution of sex cases a high priority. She hopes as more cases are successful, more people will report sexual abuse.

“My objective in drawing attention to [mandated reporting and sexual abuse] is not to have as many victims,” Ketola said.


Mandated reporter

Under state statute, mandated reporters are those who know or have reason to believe a child is being maltreated now or within the preceding three years, who work in the following fields:

• the healing arts

• social services

• hospital administration

• psychological or

psychiatric treatment

• child care

• education

• correctional supervision

• probation and correctional services

• law enforcement

• a member of the clergy in certain circumstances


Tip sheet

Warning signs of possible sexual abuse in a child’s behaviors.

Any one sign doesn’t necessarily mean that a child was sexually abused, but the presence of several suggests that you begin asking questions and consider seeking help. Keep in mind that some of these signs can emerge at other times of stress such as:

• During a divorce

• Death of a family member or pet

• Problems at school or with friends

• Other anxiety-inducing or traumatic events

Behavior you may see in a child or adolescent:

• Has nightmares or other sleep problems

without an explanation

• Seems distracted or distant at odd times

• Has a sudden change in eating habits

• Refuses to eat

• Loses or drastically increases appetite

Has trouble swallowing

• Sudden mood swings: rage, fear, insecurity or withdrawal

• Leaves clues that seem likely to provoke a discussion about sexual issues

• Writes, draws, plays or dreams of sexual or frightening images

• Develops new or unusual fear of certain

people or places

• Refuses to talk about a secret shared with an adult or older child

• Talks about a new older friend

• Suddenly has money, toys or other gifts

without reason

• Thinks of self or body as repulsive, dirty or bad

• Exhibits adult-like sexual behaviors, language and knowledge

Signs more typical of younger children:

• An older child behaving like a younger child (such as bedwetting or thumbsucking)

• Has new words for private body parts

• Resists removing clothes at appropriate times (bath, bed, toileting, diapering)

• Asks other children to behave sexually or play sexual games

• Mimics adult-like sexual behaviors with toys or stuffed animal

• Wetting and soiling accidents unrelated to toilet training

Signs more typical in adolescents:

• Self-injury (cutting, burning)

• nadequate personal hygiene

• Drug and alcohol abuse

• Sexual promiscuity

• Running away from home

• Depression, anxiety

• Suicide attempts

• Fear of intimacy or closeness

• Compulsive eating or dieting

Physical signs of sexual abuse are rare. If you see these signs, bring your child to a doctor. Your doctor can help you understand what may be happening and test for sexually transmitted diseases.

• Pain, discoloration, bleeding or discharges in genitals, anus or mouth

• Persistent or recurring pain during urination and bowel movements

• Wetting and soiling accidents unrelated to toilet training

— Courtesy of


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