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Child abuse awareness, sexual assault recognized

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Ninety-five stars on display outside the Polk County Sheriff’s Office represent the 95 children who were forensically interviewed regarding claims of child abuse or sexual assault. Photo by Emily Banks WootenNinety-five stars on display outside the Polk County Sheriff’s Office represent the 95 children who were forensically interviewed regarding claims of child abuse or sexual assault. Photo by Emily Banks Wooten

From Enterprise Staff

Ninety-five stars are currently on display outside the Polk County Sheriff’s Office representing the 95 children who were forensically interviewed regarding claims of child abuse or sexual assault following reports to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

“When speaking about child abuse and sexual assault, the word victim is used. We want to represent these children as stars with a bright future” Sheriff Byron Lyons said. “Abuse is hard to talk about, it’s hard to tell someone, it’s even harder to recover from. These children are survivors, they are stars.”

Lyons acknowledged that the Polk County Sheriff’s Office is happy to partner with Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Polk County DA Victim Assistance, Childrenz Haven and SAAFE House in recognizing April as Child Abuse Awareness and Sexual Assault Month. He also expressed his appreciation to Francisco and Ashley Lopez for their contribution to the display.

Two grants acquired by the sheriff last October allowed him to hire for two new positions. Special Victim Liaison Christi Allen concentrates on the abuse and sexual assault of children, while Crime Victim Liaison Chawna Reuter focuses on crime victim’s rights and adult abuse and sexual assault during the investigative process.

Allen was responsible for attending all forensic interviews for the sheriff’s office, as well as courtesies for area law enforcement agencies. Allen and Reuter assist victims by directing them to the various services available to them in the immediate area at no cost to the families.

Lt. Craig Finegan and Det. Lee Rogers investigate crimes against persons, which include child abuse, sexual assault, homicide, domestic violence and homicide. They investigated 41 sex crimes involving children and 70 child victim cases ranging from neglect and assault to homicide in 2021.

Texas Department of Health and Protective Services, formerly known as Child Protective Services, becomes involved with children and families when they are referred by the DFPS Investigations Division, which investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect. Investigations Supervisor Krystella May reported that their office investigated 591 cases with 104 confirmed victims. One thousand one hundred ninety-six children were interviewed by their department and 49 children were removed from offending parents during 2021.

The Polk County DA Victim Assistance Office is tasked with insuring that victims are aware of their rights and kept informed of the progress of their case through the judicial process. Victim Assistance Coordinator Megan Knighton assists with protection order applications and attends forensic interviews of children who have made claims of physical or sexual abuse. Knighton is responsible for ensuring that crime victims know and understand their rights while participating in the prosecutorial process. In 2021, 62 cases involving children were indicted by the Polk County Criminal District Attorney’s Office and 76 protection orders were filed.

Childrenz Haven provides evidence-based, trauma-informed services when there is an allegation of sexual abuse, severe physical abuse, child fatality, or child witness to a violent crime. The children’s advocacy center collaborates with law enforcement, DHPS and the prosecutors by coordinating joint investigations and facilitating case reviews so that no child’s case falls through the cracks. Childrenz Haven Executive Director Crystal Finegan and her staff conduct forensic interviews and offer free counseling for those children.

SAAFE House is committed to empowering family violence and sexual assault victims by providing individualized, immediate, no-cost, confidential services. Rene Murphy, executive client services director, supplied national statistics stating that every 68 seconds someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. On average, there are 464,000 victims each year. One out of every six women in the U.S. have been the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault in her lifetime. Males ages 18-24 who are college students are approximately five times more likely than non-students of the same age to be victims of sexual assault, and every nine minutes a child is a victim of sexual assault. Approximately 63,000 children a year will be victims of sexual assault.

“We will continue to work with the community in order to educate the public about child abuse and sexual assault to make Polk County a safer place for our children. They are our future and we are tasked with the responsibility of protecting them. We can only work toward our goals, but with the support and education of our community we can make those goals a reality,” Lyons said.

For those interested in a presentation for your service club, property owners association or workplace, contact Christi Allen or Chawna Reuter at 936-327-6810. 

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