It’s been several weeks now, but two plea hearings I recently sat in on in criminal court will likely stick with me for a while.
I was in court to report on a plea deal made by a local middle school teacher charged with sexually assaulting two students.
For whatever reason, the case kept getting moved lower down on the docket.
For several hours I shifted on the rock-hard bench and listened as defendants mostly charged with drug offenses or parole violations accepted their agreed-upon punishment and promised to mend their ways.
One case in particular made my stomach turn.
The defendant, a man in his late 30’s was led to the podium.
The judge read the terms of his plea agreement. If he pleaded guilty to one count of child rape, the other charges would be dropped and he’d spend the next 30 years in prison.
The judge asked a series of questions. Did he understand he’d be 67 years old when he was released? Did he understand he would be on the sex offender registry for life? Did he understand he was to have no contact with his victim?
Each time he emitted a respectful, barely audible, “yes sir.”
The assistant district attorney then read the state’s proof had the case gone to trial.
The defendant had admitted to raping his victim, a relative, repeatedly from the time she was 10 years old until, at 16, she showed up an area hospital with stomach pains. It was determined later that the teen was pregnant with the defendant’s baby.
The teen and her mother were satisfied with the plea deal, the assistant district attorney told the judge who accepted the agreement.
The defendant was ushered out of court, the next case was called, and I thought I would throw up.
I kept going over in my mind how someone could endure six years of repeated sexual abuse without anyone else knowing. How many people felt deep down that something wasn’t quite right yet turned a blind eye? Were there people who knew exactly what was going on but failed to speak up?
An hour or so later the judge called the case I was there to report on.
The well-known and well-connected teacher approached the podium with the county’s best-known defense attorney by his side.
The teacher pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of aggravated assault while the three other charges against him were dismissed. He’d spend three years on probation and if he behaved his record would be expunged. He’d also have his teaching license removed.
The mother of one of the victims read a statement from her son, a 14-year-old who has sought counseling and contemplated suicide. Again, my stomach churned.
I thought of the courage it takes to come forward when your mind tells you that a respected adult will be believed over you, a mere child. Your chances of being believed increase substantially if other brave victims come forward. But even then, justice can be elusive.
Considering that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels child sexual abuse an adverse childhood experience that can affect how a person thinks, acts and feels over a lifetime with short-term and long-term physical and emotional health consequences – what is justice, really?
I don’t think I’m alone in believing that anyone who harms a child should be held accountable under the fullest extent of the law. That’s a given.
But the question that gnawed at me in court that day – and still lingers – is how do we make it easier for children who have been sexually abused to come forward and be believed?
I don’t pretend to have any answers, but I do think we should start with our own assumptions about what an abuser looks like. More often than not, he or she looks like someone we know and trust -because many times it is.
We should keep communication lines open with our own children, and report to the proper authorities any red flags we see with other children - or adults with suspiciously inappropriate behavior.
Because in our community - in any community - looking the other way shouldn’t be an option.
To report child abuse or neglect in Tennessee, call the Department of Children’s Services abuse hotline at 1-877-237-0004.
Tena Lee is a reporter for The Gallatin News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.