HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT: The silence, secrecy and empty promises of child sexual abuse

·7 min read

Sep. 18—The crime of child molestation is far more common than most people realize. Law enforcement officers tend to describe it as an epidemic, most often perpetrated in secret and typically by someone the child knows.

"It's a heavy thing to have to deal with investigating and it's a very heavy thing for the public to accept. But it is an epidemic, it truly is," Payne County Investigator Rockford Brown said. "If you look at it on a big scale, abuse of children is an epidemic."

Brown said almost all of his cases involve a suspect the child trusts.

"Most of the victims are abused by someone they know and love. So often I see folks post on social media about their concerns about child abduction and strangers; while this is a rational concern to have, the reality is that your child is far more likely to be abused by someone you know and care about," he said.

This was the case for Jordan, a woman sexually assaulted by her step-grandfather, Joseph Scott Rood, for 12 years. He sexually abused Jordan, her sister Kaylee, and their aunts Nikki and Michelle when they were children. The women gave the News Press permission to disclose their identities.

Rood has been convicted of lewd molestation and child sexual abuse. During sentencing, Judge Stephen Kistler told Rood his actions were "unforgivable" and "not worthy of mitigation." Rood didn't show any sign of remorse throughout the court proceedings, Kistler noted.

He was sentenced to a total of 160 years, but because the charges will run concurrently he will serve 40 years in prison, with seven of those years suspended.

There are several factors that play into keeping child sexual abuse a secret between the perpetrator and the victim. They include grooming, fear, not realizing they are being abused, use of threats, and more.

What is sexual grooming?

Brown said grooming is different for each child, although there may be some common grooming techniques, every kid has a different experience.

Kids aren't the only ones being groomed.

"Typically they groom not only the child but they groom everybody around them to think they are a good person. Quite often they could be pillars of the community," he said. "Again, it goes back to the offenders who are willing to groom other people around them and make them think they are a very good person."

Mary Melton, a counselor at the Saville Center for Child Advocacy, said typically grooming occurs before sexual abuse, and that it's important for people to know, 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18.

"When children are exposed to the grooming process, they typically enjoy the attention and gifts. Sometimes children think it is a 'normal' way adults show affection to children," she said.

Some examples of grooming behaviors she mentioned are:

—Frequently initiating or creating opportunities to be alone with a child or multiple children

—Developing a fixation with a child

—Giving special privileges and/or buying gifts for the child

—Befriending a family but showing more interest in building a relationship with the child

—Playing "games" like tickling and accidentally touching the genitalia

In 2019 a child in Payne County reported sexual abuse by her grandfather, who had said he would go away if she told.

When he was convicted, she wrote a statement to him that was shared with media.

"I don't have very much to say, but I want to thank the judicial system, Investigator Brown and the Saville Center for helping us and for my Grandpa Jerry, you were right when you told me not to tell anybody or else you'd go away for a while. Good luck."

In Jordan's case, for a long time she didn't realize she was being abused.

If a child isn't aware what's happening is abuse, they don't think there is anything to report, Brown said.

The women eventually came forward to ensure Rood would never be able to abuse again, after learning he was planning to adopt a child.

Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations Agent Rachell Savory works in the Internet Crimes Against Children Unit. She said when she investigates cases, sometimes the child believes they are in a relationship with the perpetrator.

"These relationships may be in person or online. The children believe what the offender tells them about their age, love, and feelings for the child," she said.

Reporting sexual abuse

In Oklahoma, anyone who suspects a child is being physically or sexually abused is required by law to make a report.

Victims on the other hand, are not required to report their own abuse. The exact number of children molested is thought to be grossly underreported, making it difficult to compile accurate statistics.

Over the past four years, the Payne County District Attorney's Office has filed 49 cases of sexual violence against a child. The exact number of reports throughout the county are unknown, but Brown estimated he has investigated approximately 30 cases since he started as an investigator in October 2017.

Perkins Police Chief Bob Ernst said crimes like this involve many agencies including police, Department of Human Services, the Saville Center and the Payne County District Attorney's Office, who all work together.

Victims of child sexual abuse may never report for a variety of reasons. Some may feel shame, some may feel like no one will believe them, or some may be afraid to tear their family apart.

"Fear is often a huge factor. Children are scared for their safety, scared they might be taken from their parents, and can even be scared that the perpetrator will go to jail," Brown said.

Another reason they may not report is because their abuser is a family member. They may think they are the only victim.

Myths surrounding abuse

Law enforcement, child protective agencies, and advocacy centers continually work to bust myths surrounding child sexual abuse.

—"Stranger danger"

Oftentimes, the person people least expect is the one sexually abusing kids, Jordan said.

"There's many, many times you're going to leave your kid alone with your grandfather or their father or just your uncle," she said. "It doesn't really matter who it is, there's just so many ample chances for them to be around other family members that have the potential of doing this to your kid, rather than a stranger off the streets doing it."

Brown said he typically sees concerned parents on Facebook worried about their child getting assaulted or abducted by a stranger. Although he said this can happen, it's rare.

"If all these people were creepy and easy to pick out then we wouldn't have nearly as many abused children, because people would be reporting them and you'd know to keep your kids away," Brown said. "People ... just assume because this is a good family member and they like kids and they're good with kids they would never do these things."

—The child is lying about abuse

A tactic sometimes used in court is for the defense attorneys to say the child is lying, because if they had been molested, they would have reported it.

Brown said this just isn't true.

"They're going to look for a potential motive to which they would try and make it look like a fabricated allegation. Really in these cases that's all it's going to be," he said.

—It doesn't happen where I live

One common myth people believe is child predators don't live near them or they look and act a certain way. Brown said no one wants to believe that someone in their community is a child molester. This can be an issue when a child does report abuse, and the allegations are made against someone well-known in the community.

Alberto Morejon IV was a Stillwater teacher charged with sending sexual messages to a former student and having sexual contact with another student.

One of the charges was dropped because the victim decided not pursue it. He eventually pleaded guilty to sending explicit messages to his former student and was sentenced to a total of five years in prison.

When the story broke, Morejon initially had people who expressed support for him on social media.

"This ties right back to why people don't want to talk about it, they don't want to read about it," Brown said. "But I would say this is a must read, for anybody but most people don't want to stomach it, it makes them sick to their stomach."

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