By Jenny Palmer
District Attorney in Henderson County
The idea for a task force on crimes against children began in 2021 while I was discussing the difficulties of prosecuting child sexual abuse cases with Major David Faught at the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office.
I asked Major Faught if he thought Sheriff Botie Hillhouse would be interested in a specialized group of investigators handling all crimes against children for all of Henderson County.
For some background, Henderson County is East Texas (about 60 miles southeast of Dallas) and encompasses 948 square miles with a population of 85,511. We have 19 law enforcement agencies (including three school district police departments), some of which are larger, like the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office. Some of them, however, have only one or two officers.
The problems getting thorough, complete investigations in crimes against children cases are not unique to Henderson County, or even to rural counties. Investigations involving sexual and physical abuse of children are often complex and take an enormous amount of specific training, time, and resources. But a swift investigation is vital, or evidence is lost and children’s families become uncooperative. It is especially difficult for smaller agencies where the sole investigator also has to work traffic and take calls in addition to trying to investigate. Many of our agencies could not afford to send an officer to observe a forensic interview, let alone attend a multi-disciplinary team (MDT) meeting.
Not long after my initial conversation with Major Faught, he called to say the sheriff was on board and wanted to meet to discuss a task force. I brought several examples with me, and we discussed the problems that we faced, spit-balling ideas for about an hour. We left that meeting excited but unsure of how to proceed.
Luckily, I knew someone who could help. Sheila Davis is the Chief Operations Officer with Maggie’s House, the Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) in Henderson County. Sheila has been with Maggie’s House since 2006 and has relationships with CACs all over the state. She is a forensic interviewer, an expert witness, a program manager, and a mentor to many. Sheila mentioned that she knew Dan Powers, the Chief Operating Officer for the Children’s Advocacy Center of Collin County, which has a rural task force. Sheila said she would reach out to Dan to see if he would visit with us about how their task force worked.
Soon after, on a cold morning in January 2022, Sheriff Hillhouse, Shelia, and I met in Plano with officers from multiple jurisdictions, along with a prosecutor who sat with us for over an hour explaining how the task force worked, walking through the problems that office faced getting started, and patiently answering our endless questions. They were gracious enough to meet with more of us in Henderson County via Zoom in March 2022 when others had questions. Dan Powers shared examples of interlocal agreements and made himself available to offer guidance and advice. Without the Collin County CAC, I don’t think our task force would have had a chance to get off the ground. They truly set the bar for how all agencies can work together to better protect children.
Once we were confident that a task force could work, we needed to develop a blueprint of what we wanted it to look like. Sheila ran numbers and percentages of how many forensic interviews of children Maggie’s House conducted every year. Sheriff Hillhouse had already committed to assigning one investigator to be housed at the Help Center (the umbrella organization under which Maggie’s House sits) prior to the task force being established. While I had already assigned a prosecutor, Katy Colts, to crimes against children only, I also committed to prioritizing her being present to observe the forensic interviews and for all MDT meetings and rotating on-call with me for after-hours interviews.
The numbers were staggering. In 2021, Maggie’s House conducted 416 forensic interviews. This increased to 452 for 2022. When I came into office in January 2021, we were coming off a COVID backlog with large numbers of both unindicted and indicted cases. The DA’s office has seven total prosecutors, including me, and we knew we had our work cut out for us.
We set our goals first. We knew we wanted the task force to begin no later than January 2023. Sheriff Hillhouse committed to assigning an additional three of his investigators to the task force and for them to be housed at the Help Center, a location that was several miles from the sheriff’s office. Sheila spoke with Executive Director Leslie Saunders, and they committed to a secure office space for these investigators. Sheriff Hillhouse assigned one of the team members to handle all phone and data dumps and paid for the equipment and training so that we did not have to send our phones to other jurisdictions, which was a big asset.
We looked at the percentages of forensic interviews that came out of each of our law enforcement agencies and developed a model based off those percentages as to how much money each city would contribute to the county. Our goal was to use those funds for two additional investigators so the task force had six investigators total.
Sheriff Hillhouse developed the model of how agencies refer their cases for investigation to the task force. A participating agency would take a simple initial report and immediately contact the captain at the sheriff’s office, who would then assign an investigator with the task force. This investigator would set up the forensic interview, observe it, and work with the task force throughout the investigation until the case was filed with the DA’s office. Each of these investigators would be sent to training specific to crimes against children. This would cut down on officers interviewing children in the field and make sure the forensic interviews occurred close in time to the initial outcry.
Our hope was that cases would not only be thoroughly investigated, but also the time from investigation to disposition would be faster.
The traveling trio
We knew from the outset it would be a large project to get each of our many municipalities and departments on board. My greatest fear was that the agencies would not want to give up control of “their cases” or admit that there was a need for assistance. However, we came across this problem only twice throughout the whole endeavor. Other than those two locations, we had almost unwavering support. We traveled to Athens, Brownsboro, Chandler, Eustace, Gun Barrel City, Log Cabin, Tool, Trinidad, Seven Points, and our school districts. The police chiefs, along with their city managers and mayors, all recognized and welcomed the need for the task force. They asked intelligent, articulate questions and volunteered to help however they could.
My second fear was that many of these areas would not have the ability or desire to contribute financially toward salary for an investigator who was not one of their own. Again, we realized very quickly that our fears were unwarranted. Sheila ran reports each month so that we could give concrete numbers and examples to each city on the benefit of participation and the resources the task force could offer. City after city determined that it was a good use of their budgets.
Sheila, Sheriff Hillhouse, and I spent close to a year traveling across the county, usually more than once, to talk to various city councils. There were many evenings we missed ball games and dinner with our families as we sat through city council meetings that lasted well into the night and listened to citizens mull over issues within their city. At times, we would leave one city council meeting to drive to another one across the county. This travel meant meeting countless people across our jurisdiction and educating them about the child abuse epidemic in Henderson County and explaining the realities that our children face in the legal system. Everyone was free to ask questions of us, and we got to really hear from the people in our community.
Our first presentation to the councils was simply asking members to consider signing a resolution in support of the task force. We would then present them with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and answer any questions before coming back before the council a second time to ask them to sign the MOU. Several cities requested a special workshop with the three of us so that they could ask more in-depth questions, so we did that as well.
In April 2022, the City of Chandler became the first city to sign our resolution, followed the next month by the City of Athens, which is the biggest municipality in our county.
During this process, we received great news. Authorities at Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas had heard about what we were doing and wanted to help. Leslie Saunders and Sheila Davis worked with Hannah Gibson-Moore, Strategy Development Principal with Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas, on a one-time grant through the Children’s Justice Act to help with startup. This grant started in February 2023 and will run through the end of the year.
Even before January 2023, we started training the investigators. Although several of them were already seasoned, everyone wanted to receive the most up-to-date training possible. Maggie’s House organized a training that also included investigators from Child Protective Services (CPS) and attorneys from the District and County Attorney’s offices. At the training, our Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, Meghan Richardson, taught everyone why SANEs are so vital and how they can be utilized in every case, whether acute or non-acute. A forensic scientist from the Texas Department of Public Safety taught a class about the types of testing that investigators should be aware of. We also used the training as a chance for everyone to get to know each other and network to build relationships across all our departments. We very much wanted to make sure everyone across all disciplines (CPS, law enforcement, and prosecution) worked in tandem to protect kids. The District Attorney’s office also put on a training for CPS and law enforcement about testifying in court. This eight-hour course offered practice testifying on the stand about a fictional case, both on direct and on cross, in a real courtroom where they may testify. It also helped the prosecutors practice their technique in questioning witnesses.
Off and running
Once we had as many agencies as we could get on board, the county commissioners and county judge had to approve the MOUs between the cities and our county. County Attorney Clint Davis was central in helping draft the MOUs and being present for all commissioners court meetings to discuss the plan. The support of County Judge Wade McKinney, as well as all four of our commissioners (Wendy Spivey, Scott Tuley, Chuck McHam, and Mark Richardson) was vital. They also approved salary for a second victim assistance coordinator (VAC) to help with the influx of cases we were anticipating involving crimes against children.
Not even one month after the formal date that the task force was created, a capital murder of a young child occurred in the county. It followed on the heels of several other child deaths. Our task force quickly jumped into action and worked together to conduct a detailed, thorough investigation.
I have been so impressed to see several of the investigators working together on one case to quickly get it to the District Attorney’s office. At any given time we may have one investigator watching a forensic interview and relaying information to another investigator who is working on search warrants or questioning the suspect and getting outcry statements. They can quickly bring electronics to another team member to download phone data and write preservation letters, and getting results is happening faster every day. Having a prosecutor observing the forensic interview from the get-go has improved our ability to spot issues more quickly, and our VAC reaches out to the family of the victim or CPS immediately after the investigation is complete so we can start building relationships to see prosecution through. Any team member can request a special MDT meeting for issues that arise and to check in with all departments about the status of the case or any updates.
The task force today
Today, the task force is made up of six investigators from the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office, and it handles cases filed in 13 different law enforcement agencies. Maggie’s House has conducted 362 forensic interviews from January to the end of September 2023. All six investigators, along with Assistant District Attorney Katy Colts and Child Protective Services personnel, meet weekly to staff cases and address issues that may come up. Everyone communicates consistently and constantly to make sure nothing is missed. Katy has been handling this caseload since January 2022. The District Attorney’s office has had 154 new cases involving crimes against children from January through August 2023, which is an average of nearly 20 per month. Katy currently has 116 indicted cases involving child abuse and an additional 30 unindicted cases. Katy handles all cases from intake through appeal, so she has a heavy load.
Active participation in MDT meetings has also increased exponentially. Additionally, camaraderie amongst the team has increased, which we hope will boost the longevity of these officers. Maggie’s House has hosted a team-building day with the CAC staff, and the task force and hopes to do another one soon.
For our part, County Attorney Clint Davis and I have ramped up our education efforts and have been going into schools to discuss not only child abuse, but also sexting and the dangers of online communications and “Romeo and Juliet” relationships that can result in dire consequences for kids. Sheriff Hillhouse has allowed officers from the task force to go with us into schools for the presentations, and we have been met with overwhelming support.
Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas did a six-month survey regarding the task force for all police chiefs in the jurisdictions that have joined the task force, along with an MDT member survey. The results have been positive. The most common reasons why agencies chose to be a part of the task force was the cost-effectiveness for their jurisdiction by sharing the time commitment required for investigations and staffing issues. MDT members also felt that the invest- igators have more knowledge of trauma-informed approaches.
Our hope for the future is to eventually have 100-percent participation amongst all agencies in Henderson County. We have noticed a big difference in the quality of cases filed from the task force versus non-task force cases. I hope that every child eventually gets the justice they so deserve; I also hope that even those children whose cases don’t see prosecution still receive the services they need to help them heal.
At my swearing in as district attorney for Henderson County on January 1, 2021, County Judge Wade McKinney told me, “County government is all about relationships.” Having been through this process with Sheila and Sheriff Hillhouse, I could not agree more. We have built relationships across our county that benefit our county every day.
 According to numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau, https://data.census.gov.