Justice is unequal in sex abuse

Those who molest family members get lighter sentences than outsiders, data show.

A young woman in Hennepin County accuses her father of sexually abusing her since she was 12 and impregnating her at age 18.

A 13-year-old Ramsey County girl tells a school counselor that her father had been touching her while her mother was in the hospital.

A 15-year-old Anoka County boy reports to police that his stepfather, convicted of a sex offense years earlier, committed sex acts with him, once in exchange for help with a video game.

In each case, Minnesota sentencing guidelines called for a seven-year or 12-year prison sentence. Instead, each defendant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year or less in jail and a long probation.

Such lighter sentences are given more often to defendants abusing children in their own families or households than to those who abuse outside their families, a Star Tribune analysis of nearly 1,500 child sex abuse cases shows.

From 2001 to 2007, 33 percent of family or household child sex abuse defendants facing prison time ended up with probation, compared with 26 percent of those abusing outside their families. In the most serious cases where victims were between 13 and 15 years old, the difference was even greater: 37 percent versus 24 percent.

That sentencing disparity troubles some legislators and advocates for victims.

"It's really unfortunate because ... girls and boys who have experienced incest are somehow valued less than girls and boys who have experienced abuse at the hands of neighbors and coaches and teachers and other people," said Elizabeth Saewyc, a nursing professor in Canada who studies abuse victims in research with Children's Hospital of St. Paul.

Even family members who initially agreed to lighter sentences for abusers -- to protect children from having to testify or to keep a family wage earner working -- sometimes come to feel probation sentences aren't enough as they watch the effect of abuse on the child victim play out for years.

But others in the justice system say family relationships make the cases extra difficult to prosecute. Sending a defendant to treatment with decades of probation is still a tough penalty and often right for the family in the long run, they say.

"When you come down to trying to figure out what to do with these cases, you have to get realistic and you have to be pragmatic," said Pat Diamond, deputy Hennepin County attorney.

The Star Tribune is not naming the defendants in these cases because it would identify their child victims.

A child's secret

One Anoka County mom is among those convinced that a relative's probation sentence didn't fit his crime. She still trembles while flipping through the files of her daughter's abuse case on a worn dining table.

It has been three years since her little girl, then 6, made a quiet statement that changed their lives forever.

They were playing a board game on a bed, the television blaring in the background, when a commercial came on about privacy.

I have a big secret and I'm not supposed to tell anyone, the woman remembers her daughter saying softly.

You can tell me anything, I'm your mom, the woman said she responded.

A relative, the girl explained, had been touching her inside of her clothes.

The mother couldn't believe her ears at first. She brought her husband into the room. The girl went on to describe things in detail.

It was bedtime, and, not knowing what to do, they tucked their daughter in. She and her husband sat up for hours. They made a distraught call to their clergy. The next morning, they called county child protection services.

Within days, the relative was charged with first-degree criminal sexual conduct -- the most serious sex crime. He pleaded guilty under an agreement setting aside a 12-year-prison sentence and giving a year in jail with release for work and treatment. During his 30 years of probation, the 12-year sentence could be imposed if he breaks probation rules.

In the swirl of police and lawyers and therapists, the woman and her husband went along with what prosecutors and others felt was best.

But now she feels the abuser's punishment didn't compare to what they suffer. She still looks at everyone with suspicion: Teachers, other parents, even clerks at stores.

Is he a pedophile? she wonders. For a year, she drove her daughter to school each day, wouldn't let her go to sleep-overs, and watched her every minute at swimming lessons.

Now the jail time is over and the man is resuming his normal life, she said. She wonders if her daughter ever will.

One recent day, she took her daughter to a salon. You look pretty, she remembers telling the girl as they walked out.

The girl paused. I just can't look too pretty, her mother recalled her saying. She didn't want other men to like her in the same way as her abuser.

What guidelines allow

The Sentencing Guidelines Commission was created by the Legislature to make felony sentencing more uniform across the state. But judges can depart from those guidelines, even forgoing recommended prison sentences altogether if they find a compelling reason.

They do that more for cases classified by statute as "intra-familial sex abuse" than for other sex crimes, according to the commission's reports.

Through the 1990s, the departure rate in those "intra-familial" cases -- which do not include all child sex offenses in families -- was usually more than 45 percent and sometimes more than 50 percent, according to last year's report, the most recent available. In 2007, judges gave probation 43 percent of the time. In 2006, it was 48 percent.

Prosecutors and others in the judicial system argue that there are good reasons for that. Family members may side with the defendant. Victims can get pressure from relatives if a breadwinner goes to prison. There is seldom physical evidence. Prosecutors weigh the risk of losing the case versus a guilty plea, which they say can be healing for everyone.

Prosecutors "have an obligation ... to really find out what's in the best interest of the community and this family," said Paul Young, division chief for violent crime in the Anoka County attorney's office.

Probation usually includes up to a year in jail, treatment, sets conditions such as no contact with children and can last 25 or 30 years. Offenders who fail can have prison sentences kick in.

"It allows for a really heavy consequence if you're wrong," said Isabel Gomez, former state judge and former executive director of the Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

A family reunited

Sometimes probation is enough, defendants get treatment and families are restored.

One Twin Cities woman says she has repaired her relationship with her adoptive father, who touched her inappropriately when she was 11.

The man said he had been secretly exposing himself for years and was too ashamed to seek help. Years into his second marriage, he snuck into his daughter's bedroom a few times and touched her breasts. He said he didn't think she would remember.

Years later, the girl told her mother about it, but wasn't sure whether it was just a dream.

The man admitted it and sought treatment. He pleaded guilty to second-degree criminal sexual conduct and a Hennepin County judge sentenced him to probation.

The family separated for a while. The daughter said that was the toughest part: "I felt maybe I was the cause of breaking up the family."

In the decade since, the family has grown closer through counseling, treatment and faith, the woman and her parents said.

Dad and daughter now have a strong relationship, although he still worries about long-term effects on her. She says she has forgiven him and understands it was an illness. She said he remains her protector and "dear friend."

Will abusers reoffend?

Sex offenders are less likely than non-sex offenders to be rearrested for any offense.

Federal statistics show rearrest for 43 percent of sex offenders versus 68 percent of non-sex offenders. Most researchers concede that it's difficult to estimate recidivism, because most offenses never get reported.

In Minnesota, the rate of offending again has gone down. One state Corrections Department study found that 19 percent of sex offenders released from prison in 1990 were arrested again for a new sex crime within three years. But by 2002 that dropped to 3.8 percent.

"Minnesota actually does a pretty good job of managing its sex offender population," said Michael Miner, associate professor in the University of Minnesota's Program in Human Sexuality. He studies factors leading to sexual abuse of children.

Defendants related to victims are less likely to reoffend sexually, according to researchers who looked at dozens of studies.

The Legislature long ago recognized that family cases are different, writing into law that probation is an option if it's in the "best interest" of the victim or the family, and if the defendant is accepted by and can respond to a treatment program. Legislators intended for judges to use that provision sparingly, said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee.

Legislators and authorities may talk tough on sex offenders, he said, but the practice is something else.

"In the Legislature, we come up with these little one-liners and themes ... 'We shall have zero tolerance for sexual violence.' ... yet reality seems to be something far different."

Lingering regrets

Children abused by family members have a good chance of going on to be abused by others, said Saewyc.

A 1998 Minnesota student survey showed that half of 9th- and 12th-grade girls sexually abused in their families were also abused by others.

"Sexual abuse can change kids cognitively," Saewyc said. "It makes kids less able to judge situations."

Abused children are more vulnerable to teen pregnancy, to having multiple sex partners and to using alcohol and drugs before sex, the statewide Minnesota Student Surveys showed.

One Anoka County father is still trying to gauge long-term effects of a relative's abuse of his teenage daughter, now a young adult.

A few summers ago, the girl told her mother that her friendship with the distant relative was more than platonic.

To hide their relationship, the relative gave the girl a pre-paid cell phone, prosecutors alleged in court papers. When the mother found the phone, she questioned her daughter about it.

The girl, then a teenager battling depression, revealed that the relative had sex with her the previous summer, according to a criminal complaint.

The relative pleaded guilty to first-degree criminal sexual conduct. His 12-year sentence will remain unimposed if he follows court orders for 30 years of probation. During a one-year jail sentence, he could leave for work release.

At the time, the girl's father said, they listened to prosecutors who said a plea bargain was the safest thing to do for their daughter.

But in retrospect, he questions the outcome.

"There was no real pain in the sentence, I don't think," he said. "My daughter has to deal with it every day. We have to deal with it every day."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102 plouwagie@startribune.com Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192 howatt@startribune.com

"It's really unfortunate because ... girls and boys who have experienced incest are somehow valued less than girls and boys who have experienced abuse at the hands of ... other people."

Elizabeth Saewyc, a Canadian nursing professor who studies abuse victims in research with Children's Hospital of St. Paul

"When you come down to trying to figure out what to do with these cases, you have to get realistic and you have to be pragmatic."

Pat Diamond, deputy Hennepin County attorney

"In the Legislature, we come up with these little one-liners and themes ... 'We shall have zero tolerance for sexual violence.' ... yet reality seems to be something different."

State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee

"Minnesota actually does a pretty good job of managing its sex offender population."

Michael Miner, associate professor in the Human Sexuality Program at the University of Minnesota.
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