Editor’s note: The following story contains a description of an alleged crime of a sexual nature. Readers are encouraged to use their own discretion when reading. Additionally, the alleged victim asked to have her name withheld, given the sensitive nature of the subject matter.
“SAM” said she was a 10-year-old youth soccer player when her sexual abuse began.
“SAM” said she became a victim of sexual abuse when her father began “grooming” her — grooming is the term psychologists label the actions of pedophiles that escalate the adulthood of children by drawing them into a physical relationship.
“I remember spraining an ankle in soccer practice,” SAM said. “My father was the coach. He iced my ankle, began rubbing my ankle and up my leg…”
SAM’s voice trails off.
The pain of events that ended at age 16, numbering in the hundreds, have cost her everything.
According to SAM, she can no longer see her siblings. She has lost college scholarships. She has been locked up in a room and given psychological tests that minors should not be given. She said she also lost her ability to defend herself in court because adults, who she said promised that “he” would not get away with it, decided it is best to spare her a trial date.
As a minor she lost almost everything, except her name — and even that is shrouded in secrecy and hidden behind paperwork with initials and the word SAM — short for the legal description of the crime she says was committed against her, Sexual Abuse of a Minor.
Now she is 18, and rebuilding her life. Tuesday, she goes to court to see her alleged abuser sentenced on a lesser charge — one that has nothing to do with sexual abuse. The plea deal shocked her — and also local victims’ rights activists.
SAM said none of them had been told the specifics of the plea deal.
The sexual abuse charges were dismissed in a deal that required her father to plead guilty to charges of witness tampering.
Victim’s rights organizations were outraged
“My father sexually abused me for years,” SAM said. Hundreds of times, almost every night — for years. She said the last “in home abuse” was four nights before the Office of Children’s Services (OCS) came to remove SAM and her siblings from their parent’s house. She said the last “out of home abuse” occurred sometime after her father’s arrest, indictment, and while he was out on bail awaiting trial.
Sam stated it was around four months ago at the home of a foster family. The result was the Juneau Police Department and OCS removing articles of clothing from the house and SAM being treated like a science experiment.
A day before the trial was to begin, SAM was told of a change of plea. Expecting charges to be given, SAM and members of OCS and the Juneau-based group Aiding Women In Abuse and Rape Emergencies (AWARE, Inc.) attended the hearing.
OCS Southeast Regional Acting Manager Natalie Powers expressed concern about the charge that was offered and taken, stating it was not reflective of the harm SAM incurred or the possible risk to society of her abuser.
When asked if the victim had a say in the plea agreement process, Powers said, “I think you would have to refer to the (District Attorney’s) Office for that and what a victim’s rights are. We, however, are very concerned with the harm that has been done to the victim.”
When deciding how to proceed, district attorneys use the information collected in a police investigation.
The JPD was asked if its investigations were found to have erred. Typically, the JPD will conduct a criminal investigation and a separate administrative internal investigation per the Alaska Police Standards Council on cases such as these.
“We did our best,” JPD Chief Greg Browning said. “Often times we file charges, we do the best investigation we can, we file a charge, but it is the district attorney’s job and responsibility to look at the facts and circumstances of the case and make a determination as to how it is handled from there. It is kind of out of our hands. That is how the system works. The police department’s job kind of ends once that case is filed and each case has to stand on its own merit. We are not attorneys. That is his job to look at it and determine whether or not and how to what is the best interest of justice. And that is what he did.”
According to the JPD crime trends yearly report, there were 26 cases of forcible rape in Juneau in 2009 and a total of 133 incidents of sexually related assault reported and investigated by JPD officers.
In order to arrest a suspect, officers must establish the elements of a crime exist and there is probable cause to believe a particular suspect committed the crime. Suspects were identified and charges were submitted to the District Attorney’s Office in 11 of the 26 cases of forcible rape.
Charges were submitted in 32 of the 107 other sexual assault cases. There were 59 incidents that did not contain the elements required for criminal prosecution.
The most common location of occurrence (46 percent) was the private residence, and 69 percent of the incidents occurred between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
The JPD has investigated 38 SAM cases within the year from July 1, 2010 to July 31, 2011. On JPD daily incident reports, SAM cases are listed under “assist” or “sex crime” and explained as a confidential investigation into a report of SAM. No addresses or names are listed to protect the identity of the victim.
Browning stated, “Some are prosecution denied, some of them are clear, lots are unfounded during the investigation.”
SAM’s case is over, except for a sentencing set for Tuesday. SAM wants to speak at that sentencing. It has been moved twice.
SAM has no explanation, and was given none by the district attorney, as to why the plea bargain was done.
No comment from the DA
“I am not going to answer any of those questions about that,” District Attorney Dave Brower said. “At some point I will probably talk to the paper, but I will probably need to talk to somebody in the department about press releases or something like that.”
When asked why charges were strong enough to hold SAM’s alleged attacker for a year and suddenly are not good enough, Brower said, “Again that is another question I am not going to answer at this point. Again, I am pretty much not going to talk about any of the specifics of this case.”
Brower said plea negotiations are confidential.
“At this time I do not want to say anything on the record and I am not sure it is a good idea that the victim does,” Brower said. “But she can say what she wants prior to the sentencing, it is up to her. But it might be a good idea to hold off until after then. That is just my opinion. We just have to look at cases and decide whether they can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt and based on everything that is likely to come in front of a jury. After discussions we just decided, it was my decision, not to go forward.”
SAM has still not been told why the original charges were pleaded away; her foster mother does not know. OCS and AWARE representatives do not know.
Her alleged abuser, denying the charges for so long, opted to enter jail the day after Thanksgiving to begin serving his plea-bargained sentence. The judge’s sentencing can still differ from the plea arrangement.
“I guess I felt really bad,” SAM said, discussing the man who she said robbed her of virginity. “At first I couldn’t comprehend that what he did was terrible, but as this has been going on I have had to deal with so much and so many therapy groups.”
“I didn’t think my mom would believe me,” SAM said when asked why the abuse continued. “She loves my dad. I loved my dad. I don’t remember the age I realized this wasn’t right, that my dad is making me do all these things.”
Saralyn Tabachnick, the executive director of Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies (AWARE) stated that children abused in their homes often do not want their family disrupted, but instead they want the abuse to stop.
“The very person responsible for their care and protection is the person who intentionally and insidiously breaks their trust and harms them,” Tabachnick said. “When a child discloses abuse and is not believed or not protected, and/or there’s a lack of offender accountability, (which can come from many sources and for numerous reasons), it’s yet another betrayal.
Continued Tabachnick, “As difficult as it is for people to believe, we can choose to recognize and accept that sexual abuse of a minor happens. As individuals and as a community, we can choose to take responsibility and fathom that people — including parents — sexually abuse their children. We can choose to listen to, to believe and to give voice to these young victims. We can choose to recognize criminal behavior and hold offenders responsible. I feel outraged when a child has the courage to come forward and is revictimized in the process. We need to respect every child who comes forward, and hold adults to a higher standard.”
A family torn apart
SAM is just one of the more than 80 cases OCS is currently serving in Juneau this year. On any given week on the Juneau court calendar the initials CINA (child in need of aid) and sexual abuse can be found, meaning another child’s life and rights may have been violated.
SAM’s case came to OCS in a roundabout way. SAM told a best friend of the assaults and a fear she might have been pregnant. The friend’s sister overheard and told a parent. The parent told OCS.
When OCS first removed her and interviewed the family, SAM said mother was in tears that she had let this happen, that she had not noticed it.
“That night she hugged me and said how sorry she was,” SAM said. “The next day she wanted me out of the house. She refused to believe me.”
SAM said she then ran away and spent the night in a crawl space in a building. After a failed arrangement to stay with family friends OCS, SAM and her parents arranged for a treatment center in Utah and guardianship by a grandparent.
Documents show, however, that SAM’s parents sent her to another treatment facility and did not sign the guardianship papers. SAM says her parents tried to cover up the abuse.
The center was for students who need structured residential care and who are experiencing behavioral, social, emotional and/or academic problems.
Instead, SAM alleges her mother sent reports beforehand to the center saying SAM was crazy, suffered from bipolar disorders, and was vindictive against her father because he was never there for her. The mother requested psychological evaluations and tests by the clinic staff.
SAM says she was strip searched and physically abused at the center, that she witnessed abuse on other patients, that she was locked alone in a room for days. An OCS representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that particular center is no longer on the national preferred list of treatment facilities for youth.
According to a report, SAM’s mother refused to sign a release to allow OCS to contact SAM at the facility. OCS petitioned to the courts for temporary custody and removed SAM from the center. The treatment team there recommended she have additional treatment in a secure residential setting.
OCS had a psychological exam conducted by Southeast Psychological Services psychologist John Kesselring in Juneau. That exam intimates the statements of SAM’s parents and the staff at the center but details the psychologist’s own assessment that SAM is suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and is credible in her allegations.
“My psychological report is over 13 pages,” SAM says. “And in the end it basically says I am not crazy. It is pretty awesome.”
Repeated calls to SPS seeking terminology not related to SAM’s case were not returned.
Putting things back together
Now living with her fourth foster parent, SAM had few rights as a minor. According to her foster mother, SAM tried to get a driver’s license and, while she and OCS were for it, her biological mother wouldn’t sign consent.
SAM has spent days in court testifying in CINA hearings concerning her and her siblings. Questions have caused her to be brought out of the courtroom in tears as attorneys relive details of her allegations. SAM says her siblings have been told horror tales about her and fear her.
“The best thing that happened during the CINA hearings,” SAM paused, and wiped her eyes. “My mother testified for over an hour and when she finished the judge told her she was not believable.”
SAM has relived her nightmares over and over; she paces before sleep, won’t sleep without lights on or without the presence of a caregiver, and awakens in fear.
The Alaska Office of Victims Rights provides more than 45 rights for SAM.
“Obtain information about, and be allowed to present at all criminal juvenile proceedings,” SAM read from her copy of an AOVR document. “Be heard upon request at sentencing, before, and, or, after conviction at any proceeding where the accused’s release from custody is concerned. Be informed upon request of the accused escape or release from custody or after conviction or to obtain access to all information pertaining to proceedings. Be able to participate upon request… it just goes on forever, and they basically all say I have the right to know everything that is going on. Evidently I did not.”
On the outside, SAM is confident, even sassy, in a know-it-all teen kind of way, with her sights set on college. Inside, SAM is a frightened child, screaming for help in a tug-of-war between family and justice.
“I graduated from high school last night,” SAM, now 18, said recently of finishing Raven Correspondence. The December snow was falling lightly as she proudly explained the elation. “I took my last test at 2:30 in the morning, walked downstairs and woke my foster mom up.”
Even through this adversity SAM has qualified for college. Her test scores are in the top 10th percentile in Alaska.
SAM’s foster mother wants to adopt her. SAM would like that too, but the state’s Transitional Living Program will pay for a victim’s college if in their care.
SAM can get a driver’s license now. She once thought how great it would be to drive her sister to school or shopping, or her brother to the baseball field.
Visitations with siblings have been few and far between.
“I just had to give up on those,” SAM said. “On the last visit one was afraid, one loved me and another didn’t recognize me. It was all too painful. I left in tears.”
SAM is preparing a Victim’s Rights Statement for the sentencing. What will SAM say to the man that she says is all these things: her sexual abuser, rapist, attacker, her father?
“I think he deserves what he gets,” SAM said matter of factly. “In the beginning I might not have said that. I was still unsure what I wanted to have happen to him. But at this point, right now, I totally hope he gets everything he can.”
That statement was not malicious. If anything, there was a touch of sadness in SAM’s voice. Who is my family? Who am I? SAM asks herself these questions daily when the night terrors grip her by the shoulders and shake her body awake.
“He told me he loved me,” SAM said of her dad, her voice sounding like she was just a child again. “That is all he ever said during any of it. Every time he did something to me, he reminded me, ‘it is because I love you.’ He said he wanted me to be happy. Which is so f---ed up.”
SAM likes to swim, and play soccer, and she snowboards with her foster sister.
“I am starting to feel normal,” SAM laughed. “I mean, my Facebook friends are starting to return. Now if I could get back my scholarships from (New York University), Yale and NASA… I attend an art therapy class, I have found that more helpful than traditional therapy. I still have issues. I still have my nightmares every night and anxiety attacks. But I am finding help and ways to cope.”
SAM is now a legal adult, and the experiences and lessons of life will begin to shape her soul. Unfortunately, some of those adult lessons began at the age of 10.
• To report suspected abuse, or if you believe you are a victim, call any of the following: Alaska State Troopers 465-4000, Juneau Police Department 586-0600, Office of Children’s Services 465-1650, AWARE Women’s Shelter 586-6623, AWARE Crisis Line 586-1090, AWARE Women’s Shelter 586-6623 or talk to a teacher, friend or family member.
• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2228 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.