The epidemic of sexual abuse of minors in Alaska remains a problem with an ever-elusive solution -- a problem confusing and rage-inducing enough that it’s tempting to try to put it out of mind.
But the circumstances are all too real, and the need for help too constant, for the detectives investigating such cases to push the faces of suspects and victims from their thoughts.
For some, it’s near impossible to leave work at the office when day shift ends. When Sgt. Cindi Stanton worked as a detective in the Anchorage Police Department’s Crimes Against Children Unit, it got to the point where regardless of the menial task at hand, such as mowing the lawn or feeding the dogs, her mind would drift back to the families for whom she sought justice.
“I was thinking about this one case all the time,” Stanton said. “The family of the victim was torn apart. ... It really bothered me.”
Before coming to the CACU, detective Leonard Torres worked in the police department’s vice and narcotics units. He said the job was frustrating; it was almost impossible to change the lives of prostitutes with whom he interacted. Many were victims of childhood abuse, he said.
Torres decided to tackle the problem at its source, which required devoting his full attention to sex abuse victims, as well as their abusers.
“In order to be effective in this job, you have to open your heart completely to the victim,” he said. “There is no way to be successful if you don’t. Dealing with that is pain on a different level. It will always be with me.”
Stanton climbed the ranks and now heads up the Crimes Against Children Unit, managing its seven detectives, each carrying as many as 10 cases at a time, and an assistant.
The workload is constantly demanding, Torres said, often overwhelming.
Majority of cases are sexual abuse
The unit handles more than sexual abuse cases. The detectives investigate felony child abuse, endangered runaways, missing children, sexual assaults of children under 16 and baby deaths.
However, the majority of the work is sex abuse of minors, and the caseload keeps climbing. In 2013, 271 of 370 investigated cases were sex assaults and sexual abuse of minors. The year prior, 262 out of 351 were those cases.
“And the amount of cases we screen is much more, and there a number of reasons we don’t go through with investigations -- failure to get a good disclosure from the child, uncooperative parents stunned by disbelief,” Stanton said.
She said about 200 cases aren’t assigned to detectives each year. The majority of the investigations focus on Anchorage-based allegations, though Torres and his colleagues may travel if the abuse began elsewhere.
Why the number of child sex abuse cases in Anchorage continues on an upward trend is unknown. Stanton said the state and city have pushed for more education on the subject, so it could be that more children are feeling comfortable enough to talk about abuse. The unit participates in more and more visits to schools and conducts trainings with school resource officers.
The school visits are meant to tell kids it’s OK to share information with trusted adults, and Stanton says it’s working, in part because younger children are included each year. She said it may take a victim several years to come forward.
Abuse done secretly can disrupt life at home and school, and a victim may hold back if an adult’s initial reactions go badly, Stanton said.
If a victim steps forward and begins working with Stanton’s unit, the detective is a single professional in a long list of people with whom that child will interact. Counselors, forensic nurses, family care coordinators and others work together on each case. Alaska CARES, an outpatient clinic that provides sexual and physical abuse evaluations, and the Office of Children’s Services are in the same building as the unit.
Like Stanton and her detectives, the other providers must find ways to manage the stresses that come with their work. Everyone has his or her own methods.
Optional counseling and 'self-care'
Unlike many other officers who find themselves assigned to the unit out of necessity, Stanton didn't balk at that line of police work.
“It’s hard to talk someone into applying,” she said. “It’s never a competition.”
Most officers stay in the unit four to six years, though there are exceptions, like Stanton.
When the police department assigned many officers into a major-crime unit investigating seven unsolved murders about two decades ago, Stanton was assigned the crimes against children. She enjoyed working with kids and the challenge of interviewing suspects. So when the department reorganized its units, forming the CACU, Stanton said she was happy about being assigned as one of its full-time detectives.
But after four years of cases, she needed a break. That’s when Stanton became a community liaison for the department. Eventually, she was promoted and returned to the unit as supervisor, a position she’s held for more than seven years.
Stanton no longer sees victims in person. Instead, she reviews every case file and knows the details of all investigations. The stressors remain. Still, she contends she handles it better than she did in the past. Her remedy consists of taking a yearly three-week vacation.
“I personally need a break or it’s not healthy,” she said. This is the first year in some time she hasn’t vacationed. It helps that retirement is closer than ever.
Detectives have the option to attend counseling twice a year, though most don’t take advantage of the resource. Stanton said she’s worked on “self-care,” and her "counseling" consists of wilderness hikes and other recreation.
“It’s working for me,” Stanton said. “I’ve been accused of being obsessed with CACU. Don’t they want someone who’s obsessed with the investigations? That’s my defense.”
Stanton said she always remembers the names of victims’ families. Perpetrators’ names she cannot recall so easily.
Long days and sleepless nights
Torres, the detective, is more comfortable taking his cases home.
“You don’t have an infinite amount of time to do the cases, but each one deserves 100 percent of your attention,” he said.
He may be more comfortable discussing the obstacles of certain cases with his wife -- she does the same type of work for the federal government. They can’t share specific details, but they can share their feelings or struggles on certain cases.
Once the couple finishes discussing the workday, they try not to return to the subject.
He also uses his education to condition himself. He fell a hair shy of obtaining a master’s degree in counseling psychology.
“I look at where I am at, what I need to do to get out of the dark space I’m in at that moment,” he said.
His wife did obtain her master's in psychology. Torres said he believes what they've learned helps them relate to the people they’re helping, sometimes the suspects they’re trying to put behind bars.
Vacations help too. They have to travel out of state. If they don’t, Torres continues to get calls about cases or to talk someone off a ledge. He’s also a negotiator for the police department.
Maintaining a spiritual life is also important to Torres; he says it helps him “attempt to rebuild what’s been lost.”
Working in the unit for the last four years, Torres said, he’s developed a sleep disorder and pre-diabetes. But he said he could last in the unit for a long time despite the health issues, long hours and emotional turmoil.