The wave of sexual assault cases working through Warren County's criminal justice system is presenting unique challenges.
The cases present their own challenges for prosecution and, although actual numbers aren't available, they make up an increasing amount of the population at the Warren County Jail.
The Pennsylvania State Police's Megan's Law website lists 44 registered sexual offenders currently residing in Warren County. Two of those registered offenders are designated as sexually violent predators.
While that may not seem high, given the number of cases recently in court, consider it doesn't include offenders still making their way through the court system, or those currently incarcerated in state correctional facilities, who are listed under the county where the correctional institution is located.
"We've noticed but we don't keep numbers," Deputy Warden at the Warren County Jail Steve Smith said this November of the increase in sexual assault crimes. "We have the same responsibilities regardless of an inmate's offense.
"Right now (Nov. 13), we have a dozen to two dozen inmates on those types of offenses. In my eight years here, I've never seen it this high."
Warden Jerry Britton had some theories on the increase.
"I think a lot of the new mandates and things contribute to the numbers," Britton said, citing an uptick in failure to report amongst sexual offender registrants and an increasing number of former offenders returning to the area following state correctional sentences and being unable to re-integrate into local society. He also noted an increase in re-offenders, often individuals with mental health issues that are not treated.
"It's difficult at best," Britton noted.
However, prior to a defendant getting that far, they must first be prosecuted, a process Warren County District Attorney Ross McKeirnan notes is also far from easy.
"Before a defendant has to register with Megan's Law, my office has the burden of securing a conviction." according to McKeirnan, "In my view, child sex abuse charges are the most difficult cases to prosecute because of the unique challenges they present.
"For instance, the victims are young and vulnerable and often have difficulty recounting the who, what, when and where facts necessary for their testimony to hold up to defense attorneys.
"These victims often do not disclose the abuse right away. Sometimes not until years later, so there may be no medical or scientific evidence to corroborate the testimony"
According to McKeirnan, juries tend to expect the sort of hard physical evidence not always present in these types of cases.
"I think that juries want a video or DNA," McKeirnan said. "Something they saw on CSI, which is a Hollywood production, not the real world."
The intimacy of the acts presents additional problems.
"There are seldom any eyewitnesses other than the victim and the perpetrator. It turns out, that when a subject commits child sexual abuse, they do it when no one is looking. Imagine that. Then there is the thinly veiled threat, 'Don't tell anyone about our little secret'."
McKeirnan noted, offenders are also loathe to own up to these types of offenses, even more so than in cases of other crimes.
"Another challenge, is that we seldom have an admission or confession in these cases," McKeirnan noted. "Perpetrators tend not to admit to pedophile behavior."
McKeirnan said the relationship between perpetrator and victim also presents a unique hurdle.
"There is what I will call the family dynamic," McKeirnan said. "That is to mean, if the alleged perpetrator is stepfather or creepy uncle, the family may attempt to protect him or say, 'He would never do that'."
The repulsive nature of the crime creates further difficulties.
"Juries also may be reluctant to find a defendant guilty either because they cannot accept that the defendant would engage in such horrible behavior, or because they know he will go to prison," McKeirnan noted.
Warren County, according to McKeirnan, has adopted standard protocols to handle these types of cases for the sake of the victims. He said law enforcement focuses on conducting a single forensic interview of a child after disclosure of the crime to avoid putting the victim through the ordeal of reliving events over multiple interviews.
"The challenges these charges present are unique and, really, trial evidence problems that I have faced (are common)," McKeirnan added. "Likewise, my two Assistant District Attorneys, Elizabeth Feronti and Barry Klenowski, have developed a great deal of experience with these matters. You can expect we will continue vigorously prosecute these cases.
"These charges inflict long-term and deep emotional pain," McKeirnan concluded. "I get a great deal of satisfaction when we get a conviction and send these defendants way for a long time."