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ANNUAL EVENT DRAWS THOUSAND FOR SEMINARS ON INVESTIGATING CHILD ABUSE, EXPLOITATION, TRAFFICKING, DEATH
Eight-year-old Jennifer Schuett was kidnapped, raped and left for dead by her attacker after he had cut her throat and dumped her in a field.
The 1990 case and its 18-year investigation became the subject last week of one of many detailed seminars for law enforcement officers, prosecutors and child advocates during the 35th annual Crimes Against Children Conference in Dallas, attended by more than 4,000 from around the world, including a delegation from South Texas.
How Jennifer Schuett’s case was pursued, how evidence was gathered and how the victim assisted officers over nearly two decades in the search for the assailant were topics for detailed discussion by Nassau Bay Police Chief Tim Cromie, who was accompanied at the conference by the victim herself.
The event from August 6 to 10 provided insight into a wealth of topics handled daily by investigators and all those who handle children’s cases, including forensic interviewers, police first responding to a call, crime scene examiners, therapists, and those who bring perpetrators to justice.
Founded in 1988, the internationally renowned event has been hosted each year by the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, except during the coronavirus pandemic, when presentations were offered remotely.
Attendees from South Texas included La Salle County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Homar Olivarez, Sgt. Investigator Esmeralda Gonzalez and Investigator Adrian Ruiz; 81st Judicial District Assistant District Attorneys Leslie Carranza and Lorena Whitney, and family advocate Katie Quinny; and representatives of the Children’s Alliance of South Texas, Cotulla-based family advocate Jessie Jo Galindo, therapist Christy Williamson, and forensic interviewer Sandy Dominguez.
Other agencies with representatives attending the conference included Child Protective Services, the US Attorney’s Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration & Customs Enforcement, the US Marshals Service, and international law enforcement agencies.
Topics for attendees to address in breakaway seminars ran the gamut from child sex trafficking to social media and the means by which investigators may obtain information from a variety of sites, including TikTok and Snapchat.
A series of talks covered infant and child drowning, which is now ranked as the most common cause of death among those between one and four years of age in the United States, the means by which investigators may determine whether a child died in an accident or whether as the result of an assault or abuse, and even whether a child’s apparently unexplained sudden death in the crib was the result of deliberate drowning or suffocation.
Another seminar covered the case against a onetime assistant police chief in Montgomery County, Texas, who had been accused in a series of anonymous letters of having sexually abused two of his daughters twenty years earlier. Attendees were led through identifying indicators in anonymous information that help determine whether a case is worth investigating further, and a variety of conventional and unconventional means by which potential witnesses and victims may be pinpointed in a decades-old cold case.
Means by which cases may be examined despite delayed disclosure were addressed in separate seminars but were connected to many of the cold-case scenarios examined by presenters. Domestic violence and child sex abuse, adult sex offenders, sex exploitation and various means by which criminal elements may target children for abuse or trafficking were also examined.
Modern technology was addressed in a series of vital and informative seminars, including one in which presenters discussed linking internet accounts to criminal activity, obtaining vital data, cloud storage and ‘reverse location’ searches via communication tower siting.
Investigative and interview techniques were also addressed, with some officers encouraged to view cases and their ensuing investigations from a broader perspective in what is now termed ‘empathy-based interrogation’ and the ways in which it helps delve into the personality of a suspect and the motivations for sharing information or providing a confession that may then be corroborated with other supportive evidence.
“One of the great benefits to us in attending this conference was the amount of information we could glean through the seminars as well as through networking with representatives from other agencies, not just in Texas or the United States but also international,” Sgt. Gonzalez said of last week’s experience. “Collaborating with other agencies is vital in any investigation, and this conference opened up so many avenues for us, gave us access to valuable resources, and helped us keep up with techniques and how to stay on the forefront of the investigative measures that are developing in the world.
“This is the premier conference of its kind in the world,” the sergeant said, “and it has been vitally important for us to take part in it.”
Lt. Olivarez said he believes the variety of career specialties among the South Texas delegates made attending the conference as a team particularly valuable.
“We cover different aspects of crimes against children, but we all work towards a common goal, and we have to have the latest tools and techniques at hand to get that job done,” the lieutenant said. “Whether it’s being first on the scene of a crime or interviewing a young victim or witnesses later, we have to understand the depth and breadth of a case and where each of us fits into the process. Ultimately, we work towards a resolution, not just in the prosecution of those responsible but also in bringing peace to those who have suffered.”
Olivarez said a poignant moment in the five-day event came for him when meeting law enforcement officers, prosecutors and child advocates attending the conference from Ukraine. The team discussed ongoing crime and prevention, investigation and pursuit of criminal suspects in the midst of a war, and the resources that are needed to prosecute cases in the face of armed conflict.
“In those cases, and in many situations over there, you may not know whether you will have an office to go back to the next day or whether you will see your witnesses again,” Olivarez said. “The conditions under which some of these officers and career professionals in child advocacy have to continue working, regardless of what’s going on out in the streets, must be dauntingly challenging, and yet they do continue.
“We are reminded by this that crimes against children persist, that there are children suffering out there right now, and that it is our duty to pursue these cases, to identify those responsible, and bring resolution to the victims, regardless of what it takes,” Olivarez said, “because the children deserve it.”