Child rape prosecution has tripled in Montgomery County

The alleged rapist was a known member of the community.

“I would like to get my hands around his neck and choke the life out of him,” said the father, whose name is being withheld to protect his daughter.

Instead of acting on his own, the father did what police prefer people in his situation do: turn to law enforcement. The accused rapist, Riverside’s Michael Bohannon, faces 50 child-sex or pornography counts — 29 of which are rape — involving five alleged victims who are now in their early teens. Bohannon is scheduled to go on trial this summer.

Prosecutions of child predators are becoming more common because of a variety of factors, including improved awareness about the warning signs of abuse and less reluctance to act on those suspicions and report what is occurring.

In Montgomery County Common Pleas Court alone, prosecution of child rape has more than tripled during the past three years, according to data analyzed by the Dayton Daily News.

“I don’t think there’s a huge increase in actual child abuse or child rapes. I think what we are seeing is an increase in the reporting of child rapes,” Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck Jr. said. “They’re not kept secret like they were before. People are better educated also to recognize signs in a child when a child is being abused.”

In 2011, Heck’s office filed nine cases of rape and attempted rape against children 13 and younger. In 2012, that number climbed to 21. In 2013, it grew to 32, including 20 rapes against children 10 and younger. And those numbers don’t include dozens of rapes allegedly committed by Montgomery County’s juvenile offenders because those cases can’t feasibly be searched by victims’ ages.

Local and national officials say the increase in child rape prosecution is due, in part, to multidisciplinary teams working in Child Advocacy Centers (CACs) across the country like Dayton’s CARE House. That has emboldened more victims to come forward.

At CARE House, child services, law enforcement, victim advocates and forensic interviewers work hand-in-hand with social workers, and medical and mental health professionals. Together, they investigate allegations, treat children and build a case to prosecute.

“I think this is a good thing,” Julie Bruns, chief of the county prosecutor’s juvenile division, said of the increase in cases. “I think it’s showing we are getting better at what we do. The investigations are better. The prosecutions are better and the reporting is better. I strongly believe it’s not that there’s more happening, we’re just finding it more.”

Nationwide, 55,246 children were seen at CACs for sexual abuse cases in 2013 alone, including 745 children in Ohio, according to the National Children’s Alliance. That’s up from 49,155 nationally and 595 in Ohio in 2012.

Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association, said he knows of no agency that tracks state-by-state prosecution of child rapes. He added that “with better funding we certainly would be interested in doing a number of research projects.”

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggest child sexual abuse rates may have gone down in the past decade.

How CACs operate

Dayton’s CARE House has changed how local child rape cases are handled.

In the past, sexually abused children were interviewed at police headquarters or hospitals by untrained staff. Now, they enter Dayton’s CARE House (Collaboration, Advocacy, Response, Education) at 741 Valley St. on the campus of Dayton Children’s Medical Center. Trained forensic interviewers gather information, sometimes by having children draw rooms of the house where the abuse occurred and its occupants.

Dayton’s first facility opened in 1999 and was one of Ohio’s first centers. Now, there are nearly 30 accredited, developing or emerging CACs in Ohio and more than 700 nationally. The new victim-centered building dedicated on Feb. 14 features play areas for children and families, bright meeting rooms and all cooperating agencies under one roof.

“The way the criminal justice system and specifically the way law enforcement and prosecutors are responding to child sexual abuse has so improved in the last decade or two,” Heck said. “It has allowed cases to be better investigated, better prepped, which leads to not only protecting victim but also to holding the abuser or rapist accountable.”

The National Children’s Alliance claims that studies show defendants convicted of sex crimes against children were sentenced to longer prison terms when they had been investigated via the CAC-multidisciplinary model. One study showed an average 94 percent conviction rate for CAC cases carried forward.

Still, caution is taken to discover any false accusations.

“There are a lot of safety nets put in there before that case ever gets indicted,” Bruns said. “I would never, ever want to wrongfully accuse somebody.”

Known perpetrators

Montgomery County and southwest Ohio have seen several high-profile cases of child rape in the past couple years. Most cases locally and nationally involve perpetrators known to victims. U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that 93 percent of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker.

“I think we’ve gotten away from this sort of silly idea that it’s stranger danger that’s the primary problem — that it’s someone snatching someone up from the street corner and then abusing them,” said Teresa Huizar, executive director at the National Children’s Alliance. “We really know now based on decades of research that’s really not what happens.

“The vast majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by people that the children know and love, whether that’s an immediate family member, an extended family member or a trusted caregiver, or coach, or girl scout or Boy Scout leader, or teacher.”

Troy’s Kenneth Brandt adopted children from Texas only to advertise online that one was available for sex with men. Brandt, Beavercreek’s Jason Zwick and Dayton’s Patrick Rieder all were sentenced to up to life in prison for raping the 10-year-old boy.

All reached plea agreements, sparing the child from testifying in court. The Miami County Common Pleas Court was going to let him take the stand via closed-circuit television.

“When you’re talking about a child in a public courtroom who has to sit on the witness stand and look across the room at the person who raped them, that’s incredibly difficult (even) for an adult,” University of Dayton Professor of Law Tom Hagel said. “Imagine what it is for a child.”

“It’s the end of something and the beginning of another,” one victim of child rape said after her attacker was convicted in a case that involved family ties. “He got what he deserved.”

Hard cases to build, try

From child interviews to a lack of physical evidence and jury misconceptions, experts say child rape cases can be more difficult to prosecute than homicide cases.

“Out of the entire body of criminal law, the portions of the substantive criminal law that deals with sexual assault of any kind, has a unique dynamic to it,” Hagel said. “A rape or some other form of sexual assault trial is a completely different trial than any other type of crime.”

Bruns said that any little detail about a room where something occurred to the color of a bedspread or object can be crucial. “You’re looking for corroboration,” she said. “If all we have is this little girl or little boy who is saying this happened, what can you find that would corroborate what they say?”

At trial, county prosecutor and CARE House attorney supervisor Erin Claypoole said jurors may question the timing of allegations, why there is no DNA evidence and what acts make up the legal definitions of rape.

“There is a lot of misconception from the public — who makes up our jurors — about rape,” Claypoole said. “And we have to educate those jurors during a trial. Very often, the child doesn’t report it right away. And that may be very hard for somebody whose never gone through this traumatic event either themselves or with a family member to understand.”

Heck, a past president of both the National Children’s Alliance and the National District Attorneys Association, said trial practices have changed: “We’ve been able to use experts pursuant to law to explain dynamics of child sexual abuse and to educate jurors and judges about why there are late disclosures by children.”

The increase in child sex cases being filed comes while the overall referrals at Dayton’s CARE House have remained at about 600 per year from the 33 police jurisdictions in Montgomery County and some from neighboring counties.

“The prosecutors are definitely busier and I think it reflects the strength of these cases,” CARE House director Libby Nicholson said. “Obviously, the prosecutor’s office is not going to approve charges on cases where there is not the evidence to move forward. This team is who provides the evidence.”

Huizar said her organization doesn’t collect and sort child sex crime prosecutions, because it’s not the most important factor.

“From a community safety perspective, it’s incredibly important to hold offenders accountable for their actions and get them off the street,” Huizar said. “But in terms of child well-being, the work of child advocacy centers extends beyond legal outcomes to their mental health care and medical care.”

The father in the Bohannon case said his daughter was instrumental in helping prosecutors build a strong case against her alleged rapist.

He called her a hero.

“If it wasn’t for my daughter, he’d still be walking the streets today,” the father said. “He’d still be doing this to other little girls.”

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