2018-04-15 / Insight

Investigating child abuse no easy matter

810-452-2616 • pfoley@mihomepaper.com

Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. Det./Sgt. Bob Wells has spent a quarter of his 20-year career investigating child abuse allegations. He said it’s difficult, but rewarding. 
Photo by Phil Foley Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept. Det./Sgt. Bob Wells has spent a quarter of his 20-year career investigating child abuse allegations. He said it’s difficult, but rewarding. Photo by Phil Foley LAPEER COUNTY — Six manila folders, flagged with yellow Post-It notes sit on the shelf above the desk of Det./ Sgt. Bob Wells’ in his windowless office at the Lapeer County Sheriff’s Dept.

Along with the embezzlement case and an adult criminal sexual conduct investigation, Wells has a child pornography file and five child abuse complaints, including a cold case on his shelf.

That’s fairly typical, he said.

“I look at it like this,” Wells said, “whatever that child or victim has gone through is an absolutely horrible thing. And I can’t change that, but I can change how that victim is treated from the point I’m introduced to them and throughout the rest of the investigative and prosecutorial process. That I can change and I can make sure to be as sensitive to the victim needs as possible.”

According to the Children’s Trust Fund, statewide law enforcement opened 90,760 child abuse cases last year, up slightly from the 90,356 investigations the year before.

While the number of child abuse investigations statewide has risen steadily from 70,784 in 2001, Wells said his caseload has remained steady at about four or five new reports a week since he became the sheriff’s department’s lead investigator for child abuse five years ago.

Wells said about half the reports turn out to be unfounded or there’s not enough evidence to issue a warrant, but that still leaves a little more 100 cases a year that result in charges. He said that’s on top of the child abuse cases in communities with their own police departments.

“The problem with these types of cases,” Wells said, “pedophiles don’t molest children in front of people. It’s something done in secret and it’s also something people are unlikely to confess to. It’s something victims are hesitant to talk about. So, when you put all those problems together, it makes for very difficult cases.”

Wells noted that the image of an abuser as a guy in a trench coat parked in a van by the river is something of an anomaly. “That’s not the typical case,” he said. “Usually it’s a family member that groomed the victim, slowly gained the person’s trust and then slowly made his move.”

According to the Children’s Trust Fund, in 82-percent of the cases reported last year, the perpetrator was a parent (biological, adoptive, putative or step-parent).

“A lot of times when you’re talking about abuse of a 6-year-old, it’s a family member who’s doing it — maybe mom’s boyfriend or a cousin or whatever,” Wells said. “And then a 6-year-old carries a lot of weight on their shoulders. They don’t want to break up the family and a lot of times they actually love the person that’s abusing them. And so, they’re conflicted on what they should do. A lot of times they get pressure from the family to keep quiet and deal with it internally.”

Wells said, “Child abuse is something that has a very tangible victim involved. I get a lot of satisfaction from helping those victims and helping those families. If you’re an officer dealing in drug crimes, a lot of times your suspect is your victim. And so, you don’t really get that sense of appreciation from that person because you just took them to jail. So, I think that’s why I kind of gravitated toward this.”

“A lot of what I’m doing these days is online stuff,” Wells said.

Distance, said Wells, makes child pornography cases difficult in a different way. Recently he had a Lapeer County mother who’d gone through her daughter’s computer discovered the 16-year-old child was having a relationship with a 30-year-old man.

As the online relationship progressed, Wells said, “he’s actually made her sort of a sex slave,” coercing her into sending him nude photos and videos. Eventually the suspect mailed some sex toys from California and paid for the postage with a credit card.

Wells said postal officials told him the suspect sent several similar packages to other girls on the same day. “These types of cases are common,” he said. Wells said since the suspect is in California, it’s likely the interview will be done by local police or Postal Inspectors and it will lead to federal charges.

Wells doesn’t care who makes the arrest, as long as the guy gets taken off the street.

Technology also plays a part. Last year a six-month investigation stalled because the suspect refused to give him the password to three iPhones. But last month Michigan State Police technicians finally gained the ability to get into the phones, which means the case is active again.

Once he gets past all the hurdles Wells still has to get through court.

“That’s probably the greatest challenge in doing these types of investigations,” Wells said. “All of these types of abuse, whether it be emotional abuse or physical abuse or sexual abuse — all of these different types of abuse are going to leave scars on your victim. What will these scars take the shape of? Maybe addictions. Maybe it’s behavioral issues. Maybe it’s promiscuity. Maybe it’s low self-esteem, lack of confidence. So, these are my victims, these are my witnesses that have all of these traits. And when you go to prosecute someone, you want a victim who’s easily believable, stands up straight and looks you in the eye and unfortunately that’s what these victims are like.”

He said that’s why he’s driven to close cases.

“By the time abuse is reported to us,” he said, “it didn’t just start happening yesterday or the day before. It started happening years before and these years of abuse have changed these people. And generally, not for the better.”

Wells doesn’t see his work load lightening any time soon. “There’s a constant flow,” he said. “The thing that drives people to do this will always be there.”

But he doesn’t see himself changing his focus in law enforcement anytime soon either. “Whatever may have happened to that kid, I couldn’t change that at the time,” Wells said. “But I can change from the moment I come into that child’s life, I change everything going forward as far as this investigation goes.”

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