WORTHINGTON — A Child Advocacy Center, which will reportedly bring critical services to child abuse victims, is currently in the developmental stages and supported by many area service providers.

Having recently received a $110,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Office of Justice Programs, the Southwest Crisis Center is helping head the charge to bring a regional CAC to Worthington to better support children of physical and sexual abuse.

“The No. 1 goal is to be a resource for families and children,” said SWCC Executive Director Sara Wahl of the primary vision of the future CAC. “It’s safe, it’s accessible, it’s victim-centered, it’s culturally sensitive and a place where you can get referrals to other quality service providers in our area.”

Although finite details like where the center will be located in Worthington and how it will be operated are yet to be determined, the CAC will reportedly bring together a multi-jurisdictional team of child protective services investigators, law enforcement, prosecutors, family and child advocates and medical and mental health professionals to “provide a coordinated, comprehensive response to victims and their caregivers.”

One of the bigger foreseeable impacts of a local CAC will be eliminating travel to Sioux Falls, South Dakota for services. Currently, suspected child sexual abuse victims are referred to Child’s Voice in Sioux Falls for a forensic exam.

According to Wahl, Nobles County is the second largest referral from the region to Child’s Voice in Sioux Falls.

Service providers in the region all noted professionalism and satisfaction with Child’s Voice. In many cases, however, the travel distance creates an inconvenience and added stress for victims and their families during an already traumatic experience, local officials agreed.

“That’s unacceptable,” said Wahl of the current method of forensic interviewing, which reportedly includes anywhere from two weeks to several months’ wait time for forensic reports to be returned to local law enforcement.

“It’s not that anybody is doing anything wrong, it’s just that we don’t have the system set up right now," Wahl added. "It poses challenges, and doesn’t meet the needs of people in the community. That (wait) time can make families question what’s going on, and we can’t give them any answers.”

Area law enforcement authorities also see the development of a local CAC as being beneficial to the success of a criminal investigation.

Worthington Police Capt. Kevin Flynn said a local CAC would improve evidence collection.

According to Worthington Detective Sgt. Nate Grimmius, due to their caseloads, officers often aren’t able to accompany families to Child’s Voice and sit in on the interview. Officers then become reliant on the physician’s report for a criminal investigation.

“Then we have to decipher what was disclosed,” said Grimmius, who assists with the team that performs child protection screenings. “Where if it was in our backyard, we’ll definitely have more availability to watch these forensic interviews and have a better understanding and knowledge of what questions were asked and help (examiners) steer (further questions).”

Grimmius also sees a local CAC improving turnaround time, which he said is of the essence.

“We want to try to be timely and deal with the suspects and get them in custody,” Grimmius said.

Non-local investigations also become increasingly complicated when it comes time for trial. According to Fifth Judicial District Judge Gordon Moore, non-local services become time-consuming and costly when it comes time for trial, as professionals must be away from their office for significant portions of days to testify.

The development of the CAC is a product of a collaborative effort between local law enforcement, the Nobles County Attorney’s Office, Southwest Crisis Center and other related service providers that got underway about a year ago.

Upon examining previous case files, the professional team identified a gap in local options to provide holistic services for child sexual abuse victims, which are on the rise in Nobles County.

Reported child abuse rising across Nobles County

According to Minnesota Judicial Branch’s Data Dashboards system, criminal sex cases filed in Nobles County District Court have increased 420% over a five-year period.

In 2014, there were reportedly five sex crime filings in Nobles County. That bumped to nine in years 2015 and 2016. A more drastic increase was seen in 2017, which had 18 sex crime filings, and again in 2018, which had 26.

Although the data system doesn’t differentiate which cases involve child victims, a recent case file review reported that child sexual abuse criminal investigations comprise the majority of criminal sexual assault investigations in the county.

However, the number of criminal sex case filings don’t provide a clear picture into the number of actual sexual assault crimes likely occurring throughout the county. The discrepancy is due in part to not all law enforcement investigations getting charged, nor all sex assaults getting reported to law enforcement.

In fact, Wahl said, research has shown that less than 25% of victims ever report a criminal act.

One of the requests in the grant proposal is for data collection software to create a centralized database for all partners so that data is more uniform and accessible.

According to Nobles County Family and Children’s Social Services Supervisor Beth Mahoney, the community seems to be reporting possible child abuse instances at a fairly stable rate. However, data shows that the county’s child protection agency has screened in — and began investigations into — more reported child abuse cases at an increasing rate over the past five years.

From Jan. 1 through the third week in August, the agency received and screened 210 child protection reports, and completed 71 child protection assessments involving 102 victims. The agency recorded 265 children in case management.

The number of investigations into serious allegations — which include sex crimes and physical abuse — doubled from 2017 to 2018.

The social services agency has also noticed an uptick in CHIPS (a Child In need of Protection or Services) cases.

According to the Minnesota Data Dashboard system, CHIPS cases have drastically increased over the past five years. Nobles County recorded a five-year high of 51 CHIPS filings in 2018. That was up from 2014, when the county recorded the second-highest CHIPS filings (31) in a five-year period.

Mahoney said from her experience, many of the CHIPS cases involve parents who are chemically dependent.

Although an uptick in cases isn’t desired, Mahoney said the county’s data now more closely mirrors statewide trends.

Understanding the trend

It’s evident the number of cases has increased over the past half-decade locally, but what’s less understood by area service providers is why. It could be attributed as simply to increasing population, or it may be due to a higher reporting rate, Wahl said.

The hope shared among local officials is that existing services have become more approachable and that individuals have a heightened sense of trust and comfort level with local authorities. The Nobles County Attorney’s Office also hired a victim’s advocate last year.

In Mahoney’s line of work, increased cases may also be a result of changes made to screening guidelines.

According to Mahoney, since 2015, there have been changes to the screening guidelines a social worker must follow when considering whether they’re able to further investigate a child maltreatment report.

“Every year it feels like they’re giving us a wider lens, a wider net, of reports that we need to go out and do an investigation,” Mahoney said.

The uptick, too, could be attributed to a unique and sensitive cultural aspect, which is reportedly a common factor in many cases local law enforcement investigates.

“In other countries there’s different things that are socially acceptable or may be not be prosecuted or investigated like it is here,” Grimmius said of what law enforcement is seeing in criminal sexual conduct investigations. “So when people immigrate here, a lot of that activity that occurred in these other countries or wherever they’ve come from, it comes with them.”

Grimmius said an added challenge for law enforcement is determining whether a reported crime occurred in Nobles County and can be investigated, or if it took place in another country.

A CAC task force comprised of law enforcement, child protection, judiciary, legal, mental health, medical and advocacy professionals will continue to meet in the coming months to further develop the center.

Wahl hopes the local CAC will be operational within a year, first providing services to Nobles County children. Eventually, the vision for the center is to become a regional center for child victims from Cottonwood, Murray, Rock, Pipestone and Jackson counties.

The team will work to get the center nationally accredited, which would lead to more funding sources for future sustainability. The accreditation process could take an additional three to five years.

The task force has a lot of work ahead, but Wahl is optimistic with the team lined up to take on the project.

“This is a really hard topic to talk about, and there has to be people willing to talk about it,” Wahl said. “There are a number of people in Worthington willing to talk about it — people really committed to it. That’s what’s most exciting, the passion people have.”