Special unit fights sex crimes in the Valley

EDINBURG — Savannah Gonzalez has trouble sleeping at night, and often around two or three in the morning she’s thinking of the young girls who sit in her office on a daily basis.

As one of three special prosecutors in the Hidalgo County District’s Office Sex Crimes Unit, a group established in January 2015 by District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez in order to attack the growing number of cases involving sex crimes against children, Gonzalez and her colleagues, Hope Palacios and Andrew Whitlock, see two to four new cases on their desk on any given day.

“It’s disheartening; it’s very discouraging when you close out a case, and then you turn around and the stack on (the legal assistant’s desk) is already waiting for you,” Gonzalez said.

From October 2015 through the end of September 2016, authorities arrested and charged more than 170 people with sex-related crimes against children in Hidalgo County, according to jail records.

Gonzalez said the special unit manages anywhere between 25 and 30 cases for each prosecutor, which means taking cases home every night.

“There is too much to not take something home,” said Gonzalez, who has three young boys herself. “I keep a certain amount of trial notebooks at home, and I work on them little by little.”

On top of taking work home, the prosecutors have been working toward better coordination and collaboration with other agencies in the county that deal directly with these types of crimes, including local law enforcement agencies and Estrella’s House, the county’s children’s advocacy center.

Established in 2000, the staff at Estrella’s House, which conducts the majority of forensic interviews with alleged victims, works closely with Gonzalez and the sex crime unit.

Gonzalez said Palacios has also required all three of the prosecutors to dedicate at least half a day every week to sit in on the interviews with victims.

She said the exposure to those interviews helps her better guide law enforcement officials when they conduct their own interviews with victims.

Gonzalez, her colleagues in the DA’s office, staff from Estrella’s House, nurses from Mission Regional Medical Center tasked with the sexual assault examinations of victims, and DNA analysts have all participated in sessions with local law enforcement focused on the best practices during a child sex crime investigation, where to find resources for victims and the victims’ families, and what is needed for prosecution in terms of evidence.

Last month, about a dozen investigators attended a seminar hosted by Gonzalez and the sex crimes unit.

Claudia Montoya, a guest speaker and forensic interviewer with the Estrella’s House, asked everyone sitting inside the Hidalgo County Commissioners Courtroom that afternoon if they knew the three rules they needed to establish before interviewing a victim of child abuse.

Montoya, after silenced filled the room, explained the best ways interviewers can establish trust with young victims, by making sure the child knows it’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” “I don’t understand,” and allowing them to correct the interviewer if necessary.

“This is the same kind of interaction that happens in the courtroom,” Palacios said during the presentation. “The children take an oath and are asked by the judge if they understand the difference between a truth and a lie.”

During the two-hour presentation, which counted toward the investigators’ mandated Texas Commission of Law Enforcement hours, prosecutors, advocates, and officers discussed the challenges they face during the investigative phase and how to better collaborate when seeing these cases through the judicial system.

“We’ve had a couple of cases when the child comes in and the kids say, ‘Why do I have to talk about it? The police man already said I don’t have to tell anybody else,’” Gonzalez said.

“I think the bigger problem is the parent,” chimed in one of the advocates sitting in the audience. “The parent is upset and angry because we have to sit down with the child because an officer has told them, after you go to (Estrella’s House), you won’t have to tell anyone again.”

1. Rene Flores, an Edinburg-based criminal defense attorney with decades of experience, said he’s encountered cases of child sex abuse where the allegation turned out to be false.

The defense attorney said he’s come across false allegations during custody battles, and he’s even seen cases where the child concocts a false story because that child doesn’t like the parent or their rules.

“Sure it happens, and it happens a lot more than people might think. The reality is people think that all victims must be believed, but that’s a position that’s exaggerated,” Flores said.

Gonzalez agreed those instances do occur but she said they’re the exception, not the rule and that’s why they thoroughly investigate the sensitive cases.

“Our job is not to prosecute — it’s to get justice — if (a dismissal) is what the case merits, that’s what it merits,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve had instances where the child recants an accusation, but then we find out he or she was pressured to recant by a parent or someone so later they recant the recantation.”

Gonzalez said the seminars are self-serving because, ultimately, the tips and best practices discussed are a sort of ‘how-to’ for law enforcement officials investigating child sex crimes.

She said the sex crimes unit has made itself available to all law enforcement, guiding them through the process, pointing out things they may see while the officers go through their interview.

“The interviewer is in the moment and maybe the child said something but the interviewer missed it because they have their next question ready,” she said. “(We’re) another set of eyes and ears, really.”

She admitted the difficulty of the cases she handles has made her contemplate, even if for a brief moment, quitting.

“I’ve thought about leaving this office, but it’s one of the things where I’ve been trained. I’ve gotten this extra training, and I’d like to think I’m good at it. If I leave, is that taking the coward’s way out by passing it on to someone else? There’s a real guilt that comes with working these cases because you know the more you look (at the cases) — the more we need to do, and it’s very hard to walk away from that,” Gonzalez said.

For every 10,000 children living in Edinburg, there are approximately 11 victims of sexual abuse, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

Education and awareness about the prevalence of these instances for kids in school would be a way to start combating the issue — especially with the high number of instances of inappropriate student-teacher relationships seen lately, Gonzalez said.

“It’s not an isolated thing, and it really is happening a lot. Even if compared to bigger counties, our numbers aren’t that high, but for this area it happens a lot,” Gonzalez said. “And I think (it goes) back to what I was saying about educating our kids and telling them at a very young age that we need to talk about this.”

The prosecutor said the inability to talk openly about the topic lends itself to a culture of stifling victims of sex abuse and delays the outcries related to those crimes.

“We have an entire week dedicated to drug awareness — why don’t we have an entire week dedicated to sex abuse, or at least one day. I’d be happy with one day,” Gonzalez said. “That doesn’t make sense to me because the resources are there — especially now that we have such a prevalence of student-teacher abuse. I’d be getting my kids out of that district. If we can’t change the culture, if we can’t change the open access to children, at least we teach the kids that this is not OK, and you need to say something about it.”

When Gonzalez sits alone late at night reviewing her case files, the interactions she had with her young clients that day fill her head.

“It’s the human side of the issue. That’s when you don’t remember the medical terms — you just remember the little girl who sat in your office — that’s when I think it hits me the most, and truly there are days where it’s just impossible to put that away,” Gonzalez said. “That’s very much the side that people don’t want to talk about.”