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When The Legal System Disappoints A Victim Of Child Sex Abuse


One in 10 U.S. adults were sexually abused before they were 18 years old. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tennessee Watson is one of them. She was a young gymnast when she was inappropriately touched by her coach. She didn't tell anyone for 25 years. Eventually, she brought charges against her coach, Parviz Youseffi. He accepted a plea deal that reduced his charge from a felony to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Tennessee Watson's own experience led her to larger questions about how child abuse cases make it through the court system. She reported on this for the public radio program "Reveal." In her investigation, she looked back at 15 years of child sex abuse cases in Prince William County, Va., where she had brought her own case. But the more she looked into the data, the more questions she had. Why had some cases been picked up by prosecutors and some rejected? Where had certain cases fallen through the cracks?

TENNESSEE WATSON: If a report comes in to the police, then what happens with that report? How many of those reports end up being convictions? Are they plea deals? Are they jury trials? Are they bench trials? But what I found out was that - with the help of "Reveal's" data team, I have to say - but what I found out is that there is no code or number that is assigned to a case all the way through the system. So each step of the process has their own way of coding and classifying. They give their own numbers to those cases. And so...

MARTIN: And why is that a problem? What happens?

WATSON: Well, what happens is that you can't see how a case moves through. And so what - you know, what I thought was that there was an attrition of these cases, that they might come in as reports and be dismissed by police officers. Or they might come in and end up being dismissed by the prosecutor. Or they might be charged, but then they might end up as plea deals. And because you can't see it all the way through, it's very hard to see where these cases are being snagged up, where the attrition is happening, sort of whose decisions are impacting the outcome of child sex abuse reports.

And ultimately, you know, it is the prosecutors that are deciding what's - what happens with these cases. And it's in their particular realm that we have no data on what's happening. If they dismiss a case, we don't get to know why. So things get very murky and lost in there. And that, you know - it was ultimately not being able to get the data, which is what pointed my attention to the impact of prosecutorial discretion.

MARTIN: But did they not move forward - you're saying you don't know why they didn't move forward. So they could have not been moving forward because they just didn't have the evidence.

WATSON: Yeah, that's very true. They could have not been moving forward because they didn't think they had the evidence. And I think that's one of the other things that I've realized is that seldom is there great evidence in child sex abuse cases because of the way that it often happens. I learned about the grooming from Kimberly Norton, the detective. She's described - you know, describing the ways in which those who do harm to kids often use these techniques to get them alone. It happens in ways that other adults aren't suspicious. You know, they're perfectly nice people that nobody would think would be doing this, like, in my case, you know, a really charismatic coach who cares a lot about kids and their performance.

But still, he was able to figure out how to get me alone. And I wasn't - there was no physical violence. He - you know, he didn't physically force me. There was no bruises on my body. But he was able to set me up in an emotionally vulnerable situation and to get me alone and to have it sort of seem normal enough that my parents didn't question it. He also befriended my dad, so my dad trusted this guy. So, you know, all of those factors can contribute. And then there isn't a lot of evidence.

And so, you know, part of me says, yeah, sure, when an adult comes forward and it's an adult disclosure and it happened 20-something years before and it ends up being, you know, a grown woman's word against her abuser - that - yeah, I do think that there's not a lot of evidence there. But when kids come forward younger and we also see their cases dismissed or not followed up on properly, you know, maybe it never even makes it past a teacher. Maybe it never - doesn't make it past child protective services. Maybe it doesn't make it past the police officer to the prosecutor.

But if we're not addressing it then, you know, that's also a part of the problem. And it's because we don't have great data on how prosecutors are responding to this. It's hard to hold them accountable. It's hard to see exactly where those barriers and obstacles are.

MARTIN: Journalist Tennessee Watson, her story is being featured this week on the public radio program "Reveal." It comes from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. Tennessee, thanks so much for talking with us.

WATSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.