Task force opens its study of child sex abuse in state
PIERRE -- An estimated 80 percent children who have been sexually abused never tell anyone about it, the chairman of a new South Dakota task force said Tuesday at the panel's first meeting.
"We absolutely don't know what to do. And because of that, the conversation has never been opened up," state Sen. Deb Soholt said. "This is not something where there are winners and losers. There are only losers."
Soholt, R-Sioux Falls, was prime sponsor of the state law creating the task force during the 2014 legislative session. The lead House sponsor was House Republican leader David Lust, of Rapid City.
The House passed the bill 69-0 and the Senate followed 35-0.
There were 2,192 children whose cases were handled by law enforcement in South Dakota during 2013, according to Soholt. She said that number suggests another 8,000-plus went unaddressed.
The legislation was called "Jolene's Law" in recognition of Jolene Loetscher, of Sioux Falls.
Loetscher has spoken publicly about her experience as a victim and a survivor of child sexual abuse at the ages of 15 and 16 while growing up in Nebraska.
"Hearing the word victim, I'd do anything to take it away," Loetscher said. She is one of the 15 members of the task force.
The state law calls for the task force to complete its work by Jan. 1, 2015, and to deliver a report to the Legislature on the prevalence of child sexual abuse in South Dakota and to make policy recommendations.
Among the four legislators on the task force is Rep. Jenna Haggar, R-Sioux Falls. She said she met Loetscher in 2012, when Haggar was the lead House sponsor on a state law that lengthened the period when child sex abuse can be prosecuted.
The two other lawmakers are Rep. Peggy Gibson, D-Huron, who said her sister and her former husband were victims of sexual abuse as children, and Sen. Alan Solano, R-Rapid City, who was selected as the panel's vice chairman.
"This is really critical work we're embarking on here," Solano said. "I look forward to helping."
Soholt said the task force wouldn't be looking at who commits the crimes or how to rehabilitate the perpetrators.
Instead, she said, the focus will be on public awareness, prevention and creating opportunities for children to tell their stories to adults including law enforcement and courts.
The first expert to address the task force was one of its members, Dr. Nancy Free, a Sioux Falls-based pediatrician who specializes in child abuse. She said child sexual abuse is any sexual activity with a child.
"Child sexual abuse is very alive in South Dakota," Free said. "It's almost impossible to find anyone on the planet who's not been impacted by child sexual abuse."
She said it's rare for children to tell what happened within proximity of the events and most often disclosure is delayed.
As adults their lives tend to be "much tougher," she said, and there is "a very strong argument" economically to address child sex abuse.
"If we don't protect our children, we will have chaos," Free said.