Tara Demkowicz is on a mission.
As a pediatric forensic nurse, it is her job to examine children who have been sexually abused.
For Demkowicz, seeing pure evil is part of her job.
“You see these tiny little 2-year-olds,” she said. “Who can hurt somebody like that?”
It's a question Demkowicz doesn't have an answer to, but she cites FBI statistics that less than 2 percent of children lie about being sexually abused. When false claims of sexual abuse do come forward, it's usually an adult – not a child – making the false accusation.
According to Darkness to Light, a nationally recognized organization for preventing child sexual abuse that teaches the Stewards of Children program used by Help Inc. in Idaho Falls, 400,000 babies born this year in the United States will be victims of child sexual abuse. Nearly 70 percent of all reported sexual assaults occur to children ages 17 and under.
And Demkowicz says offenders are getting sentences that don't fit the crime.
“From my experience, it's a very small percentage of these that actually go to prosecution,” she said. “It is a very small percentage of the population that do perpetrate on children and those perpetrators can have up to 30 to 100 victims. So you're putting (offenders) away for, lets say three months. That person is going to get out in three months and most likely say, 'Well, that wasn't that bad.'”
Darkness to Light said the long-term impact of child sexual abuse will cost the state of Idaho more than $6.5 billion.
That's because the impact on the victims is so devastating. Survivors are far more likely to commit suicide, end up homeless, have a teen pregnancy, or become addicted to drugs and alcohol. Those are things Demkowicz knows may happen in the future every time she interviews the young victims. She knows it's only getting worse because the abuse is getting worse despite the fact that statistics show instances of child sexual abuse is declining.
“I've been doing this for seven years and it just keeps getting more violent and more violent, and it's really difficult to see that part,” she said.
One of her greatest concerns is what the judges don't see before the sentencing. Idaho does not allow the child's recorded forensic interview to be used in court.
“That makes it really difficult for the judge to understand what that child looked liked when they walked through these doors, how disheveled (they were), how they were crying, how they were wringing their hands,” Demkowicz said.
Demkowicz said she would like to see a minimum prison sentence for sex offenders who abuse children younger than 12, a population, she said, that is the most ignored by the justice system. She also said she does not agree with the three-month sentences being given in the rider program.
The rider program is a treatment facility run by the Department of Correction. Bonneville County Prosecuting Attorney Bruce Pickett said the program gives the state the ability to watch the offender more closely.
“They almost have this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ability,” Pickett said. “Where they have the ability to manipulate people and, on the one hand be very successful, but on the other hand, be able to use those same abilities to manipulate their victims and try and put emotional pressure on their victims to allow them to do the things they do.”
According to the Department of Correction, between January 2008 and December 2010, 69 percent of sex offenders received probation after treatment in the rider. The rider program for sex offenders averages four months, Judge Jon Shindurling said. Forty-seven percent of those who are given probation will end up back in prison for a probation violation or for committing a new crime.
In 2010, the Department of Correction called for more convicts to be given the rider program to reduce overcrowding and the growing prison budget.
Demkowicz said sending an offender to treatment to avoid prison is not honoring the victims, and that four months is not long enough to treat an offender.
“It would be like trying to tell you that it's normal and that it's OK to have sex with somebody who is under age,” she said. “It is an uphill battle trying to rehabilitate a sex offender, and I also feel that it's worth trying, of course … but it shouldn't be though of as a good response to a crime.”
Shindurling said while he takes the victim into account, his job is to work with the offender and prepare them for supervision in the community.
“We can't afford to put everyone who commits a crime in prison,” Shindurling said. “If you're a person whose got a sexual orientation that makes 12-year-olds attractive to you, you'll never overcome that. But you can learn to control it.”
Pickett says the goal of the rider program is to prevent future sex offenses.
“You can't undo what happened,” Pickett said. “The victim has been victimized … there's no amount of punishment that's going to change that. So we try and focus on preventing it from happening again – either to that person or somebody else.”
Several recent cases in eastern Idaho have angered residents over what they believe are light sentences for convicted offenders.
- Juan Urias of Idaho Falls was convicted of sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl. Shindurling sentenced Urias to three months to one year in the rider program with the possibility of prison if Urias does not complete treatment.
- David Lynn Bell is a convicted offender and now a registered sex offender who is already back in the community. Bell admitted to sexually abusing a teenager and causing her great emotional harm. He was given 90 days in jail and probation.
Despite those rulings, Shindurling said most sex offenders do receive a prison sentence.
“There's not one district judge in the state who has a soft heart toward sex offenders,” Shindurling said.
But with most child victims refusing to come forward out of fear, guilt and shame, Demkowicz said the state needs to step up and defend those who have the bravery to speak out. She's asking all Idahoans to join her in contacting Idaho lawmakers and demanding a minimum prison sentence for sex offenders.
“If someone steals $10,000 out of the bank we don't say, 'Lets put you in treatment.' And that's just money. These are little kids. Little tiny, innocent children,” she said. “And you say, 'Lets put you into treatment, but there's no penalty associated with that.' I think it just doesn't make sense to me. I don't think we're honoring our children. I don't think we're talking about how difficult it was for that child to come forth. How hard it is that their lives have changed. How hard it was that they were abused.”