Northcott: ‘You are obligated to report child abuse’

Jason Ponder, left, and Craig Northcott.

This is part 7 of a 7-part series written by Elena Cawley focusing on child abuse prevention and awareness in Coffee County

2020 investigations in Coffee County

  • 4 investigations involving the death of a child
  • 244 investigations involving sexual abuse allegations
  • 333 total severe child abuse investigations

After the Child Protective Investigative Team (CPIT) reviews child abuse cases, some of the cases go to the court system. While high hurdles stand on the way to achieving a conviction, District Attorney Craig Northcott and Assistant District Attorney Jason Ponder seek justice for every child victim of child abuse. They stressed the importance of reporting child abuse and raising awareness.     

Ponder serves as liaison of the District Attorney’s Office with CPIT. 

“CPIT is a multi-disciplinary group that comes together once a month to discuss every severe abuse case and sex abuse case that is reported in our district,” Ponder said.

The Coffee County Children’s Advocacy Center hosts the CPIT meetings.

“I provide advice when it comes to law enforcement and legal prosecution perspective,” Ponder said. “The team focuses on the health and wellbeing of the child, the safety of the child and the future health and wellbeing of the child,”

The District Attorney’s office focuses “almost exclusively on the offender,” said Ponder.

“Of course, this involves the safety of the child by keeping the offender away from the child,” Ponder said.

More than 300 investigations related to severe child abuse were conducted in 2020.

“Not all of these investigations resulted in criminal charges for a variety of reasons including that there was no or insufficient proof to support the allegations and/or the conduct did not meet the statutory definition of any current crime,” Northcott said. “In total, there were at least 333 severe child abuse investigations in 2020. This included four investigations involving the death of a child and 244 investigations involving sexual abuse allegations.”

Challenges

Tough challenges related to prosecuting the cases create obstacles on the way to finding justice.

“One of the challenges is delay in reporting,” Northcott said, adding the investigation is rarely immediate.

In most other cases, the investigation happens instantly. For example, if a fight with injuries occurs, an immediate investigation follows the crime, said Northcott.

“Child abuse very rarely occurs that way,” Northcott said. “There are usually at least days and more often weeks, months and even years between the crime and the reporting of the crime. Which means tracking down witnesses, documenting the injuries, these types of proof issues are always present in a child abuse case. And then the victims are anywhere from newborns to 17-year-old children with varying ability to communicate. You have the impact of a long-term abusive situation, and psychologically that plays into the children’s willingness to communicate the abuse. Because of the fear and control that come from living in that type of lifestyle, getting them to open up and talk about what has been a secret their entire lives (is very hard).”

Stigma and embarrassment add to the difficulty of sharing information.

“If you get into the sex abuse aspect, it’s just an embarrassing thing to talk about, and younger children don’t necessarily even understand that sex abuse is abuse,” Northcott said. “Getting them to communicate what happened to them and getting corroborating evidence – where it’s not just he-said-she-said situation because the abuser is often very good at discrediting the victim – is very challenging.”

Additionally, children may experience behavioral issues.

“There are often behavioral issues with the victim, often a product of the environment they are in,” Northcott said. “That behavioral acting out is often a cry for help.”

It hurts Northcott to “see the pain in children’s eyes and hear their voices and the pleading for help.”

“Without ever saying those words, you just feel it in talking with them…and you don’t want to disappoint them, but you can’t make any promises to them,” Northcott said. “If I don’t have the evidence, I have to dismiss the case. And then, if you do have a case, there’s no guarantee you can get a conviction. You feel a big sense of responsibility to assist in this situation. (But) I do have to stand back and not let it get personal, so I can evaluate the case correctly.

“All of these factors come into play to make child abuse cases hard from an evidentiary and trial perspective.”

Regardless of the difficulties, the prosecutors aim to provide justice.

“(We) have handled (many) cases and prosecuted them successfully,” Northcott said. “When you are able to do that, these are some of the most rewarding cases. You feel like you have achieved real justice. You have accomplished something and have protected a child from a future abuse and have gotten them a sense of closure. You often see the change in that child.”

Arresting and convicting the abuser has a positive impact on children because they know someone believes them enough to make an arrest and file charges.

When prosecutors achieve a conviction, they find a reward in seeing children “put the chapter of abuse, to a certain extent, behind them,” said Northcott.

According to Ponder, the prosecution process can take a long time and can cause additional phycological burden to the victims.

“A lot of times, trials are dictated by court calendar and witness availability,” Ponder said. “But another thing that is unique is the child’s readiness to testify. We don’t want to cause the children harm – psychological, psychiatric, spiritual, emotional harm – by pushing them on the witness stand before they’re ready. Obviously, we try to get these cases justice as quickly as possible, but we’re not going to be steamrollers in doing so and just bowl over the victims, who are the most vulnerable people in our community.”

‘Your mental, spiritual, physical health cannot ever be dependent on a court case’

Ponder said it pains him to witness the effects of child abuse.

“One of the hardest things is the human response of a child that has been harmed – and any child we encounter has been harmed, they have reached out for some reason and they are suffering for some reason,” Ponder said. “We try to discern what the reason is, and I want to be their champion and advocate. I want to come in and fight for them because that’s human nature. But sometimes the answer is ‘no.’ Sometimes the answer is ‘we can’t make a case here.’ And one thing I always tell every victim is: Your mental, spiritual, physical health cannot ever be dependent on a court case.’”

The justice system is not perfect, said Ponder.

“Children’s health and wellbeing are far too important to be dependent on a court case,” Ponder said. “I say, ‘We are going to fight for you in this case, but you are going to be okay no matter what happens in court because you are much more important than this court case.’ It’s challenging because your emotional care and love for this child intersects with the understanding of the system. And the reward is seeing children (bloom because they’re believed). Verdict or no verdict, I’ve seen kids bloom regardless of the outcome of the case. When a child sees that someone in our position believes them and is going to fight with them, walk with them and be with them, children leave the role of victim behind, move forward, and often become advocates themselves. Witnessing that is the most rewarding part of my job.”

Report child abuse: 877-237-0004

State law mandates anyone suspecting child abuse to report it.

“There’s a legal obligation to report any suspicion of child abuse to law enforcement and/or DCS,” Northcott said.

The obligation is not limited to teachers, doctors, or any particular position, he said.

Failing to report suspicion of child abuse is a Class A misdemeanor the first time and a felony the second time, said Northcott.

“Tennessee law makes it a crime not to report known abuse,” Northcott said. “There’s a hotline through DCS, and you can do it anonymously. DCS is supposed to act on that tip within 48 hours. If there’s a crime, law enforcement would be brought to investigate it. Reporting abuse is very important. It is almost never the case that abuse is going to be reported from the child directly to law enforcement, or from the child to DCS – that almost never happens. What would generally happen is a teacher, a doctor, a family friend, or the child’s friend would notice something and will say something to someone in their circles. Little Jane is a friend of Little Mary, and Jane is out playing on the playground with Mary and says something about what daddy did to her last night. A day or two later, Mary will say something to her teacher or her parent. That’s usually the most common way investigations get started.

“Listen. As a parent, teacher, pastor, whatever role you play in this community, listen to children. They are going to communicate the way younger children do, so be receptive to that, take it seriously and understand you have a duty to report. Listen to children – we’re talking about a 5-year-old child relaying this, so it’s going to be muddled, it’s not going to be clear. You don’t have to press the child for a bunch of details, we have professionals who know how to do that. We can take the lead there.”