A legislative task force on child sex abuse heard sobering statistics at its first meeting last week: An estimated 80 percent of children who have been sexually abused never tell anyone about it.
The Legislature’s Jolene’s Law Task Force is meeting monthly through November before it reports to state lawmakers in January 2015 and makes recommendations on policies and laws that could improve prevention and prosecution of sexual abuse crimes in South Dakota. The task force is named for Jolene Loetscher of Sioux Falls, who is a member of the panel and has spoken publicly about her experience as a sex abuse victim while growing up in Nebraska.
The panel includes four members of the Legislature and 11 other people, including Loetscher, who are committed to reducing the number of child sex abuse cases in South Dakota.
At last week’s hearing, panelists learned that prosecutors dismissed 379 child sex offense charges in the past year in South Dakota, while 86 people pleaded guilty, 18 were convicted and seven were acquitted. In 2013, law enforcement investigated 2,192 cases involving children and sex abuse, but because such a large percentage of incidents are unreported, it suggests the actual number of sex abuse victims in the state are more than 10,000.
To put that number into perspective, there are 169,112 children under 15 years old in South Dakota, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
One of the task force members, Dr. Nancy Free, a Sioux Falls-based pediatrician who specializes in child abuse, said child sex abuse is “very alive in South Dakota.” “It’s almost impossible to find anyone on the planet who’s not been impacted by child sexual abuse,” she said.
Last year, the Legislature’s domestic violence study committee examined the state’s domestic violence laws but mostly recommended cosmetic changes in the statutes’ language.
As problematic as tackling domestic violence was for last year’s study committee, the Jolene’s Law Task Force is taking on an even greater problem with the many more incidents that remain hidden and go unreported.
Shining a light on the problem of child sex abuse in South Dakota and finding solutions to the menace won’t be easy.
We hope the Jolene’s Law Task Force is successful in finding solutions to the frequency with which child sex abuse occurs, compared with the relatively few successful prosecutions of abuse crimes.