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Child Abuse Awareness: Prosecuting Abusers

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Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
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With a spate of arrests and convictions on child abuse and child sexual assault charges in the Pensacola area the past few weeks, there are concerns about how the grownups can step in and offer more protection.

April is Child Abuse Awareness Month, and this is part one of a three-part series entitled “Suffer the Little Children."

Perhaps the highest-profile case at this time is that of 54-year-old Charlie Hamrick, who faces 14 counts of child sexual abuse. Thirty other counts were dropped by the State Attorney’s Office. Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan says the attacks go back at least two decades, and maybe even further.

“Mr. Hamrick was a Sunday school teacher at Pine Forest Methodist Church, part of the youth ministries at New Dimensions, and also at Harvest Christian Center,” said Morgan. “He was also a football coach at one time at Tate High School.”

During a recent news conference, Morgan asked anyone else allegedly molested by Hamrick to step forward and help with the investigation.

“The State Attorney’s office, as will our investigators, will work to maintain your anonymity,” Morgan said. “You will be aided and assisted in any follow-on medical treatment, and we want to ensure that you’re pointed in the appropriate direction.”

Elsewhere, a University of West Florida student, 20-year-old Jonah Authement, is accused of trying to arrange a meetup for sexual acts with a toddler; and former EMT and firefighter Danny Murphy is scheduled for trial next month on charges of receiving and viewing child pornography through the social media app Kik.

“I think that the reporting is definitely higher than it has been in the past,” said Ann Patterson, an assistant state attorney and lead child abuse prosecutor. She says the increased number of such cases going to trial can be attributed in part to better ways of uncovering them.

According to figures from the Florida Department of Children and Families the First Judicial Circuit (Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton Counties) had the fifth highest number of child abuse victims per capita of the 15 Circuits – 14.31 per 1,000 children in fiscal year 2016. The state ratio is 9.92 per thousand.

“People in the community have confidence in what will happen when a case of child abuse is reported,” said Patterson. “And that, linked with more sophisticated investigative tools, more law enforcement dedicated to the area of child abuse investigation and prosecution.”

Since the alleged victim in those cases is a child, Patterson says that brings with it several types of considerations regarding the child’s welfare, and the opportunity to relate what happened to them in an environment that’s neither suggestive nor threatening.

“And also through the progression of the case, the child is generally the eyewitness to the crime,” Patterson said. “And the child has to talk about what happened, not only to the police but then testify in court. The child has to be supported.”

During the progression of the criminal case, victim advocates working with the State Attorney’s Office are involved with the child. Once the case is complete, the formal involvement comes to an end – officially.

“But it is not unusual for the victims to voluntarily come back to touch base with the victims’ advocate and/or the prosecutor,” said Patterson. “Just to let them know how well they’re doing.”

Mincing no words, Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan says it’s important to hear from everyone who either has information or may be a victim in the Charlie Hamrick case. But that advice could also be applied to any other such investigation.

“What you must keep at the forefront of your mind is: if you do not assist us in this, God forbid you’re not the only victim of this individual,” Morgan said. “And I can tell you they don’t ‘self-heal.’ There will be more victims if we don’t do the right thing as a community and step forward.”

But, there is a silver lining to all this. Once a child abuse case goes to court, the conviction rate is 94 percent.