What fuels the prosecutors and detectives who confront evil every day?
For prosecutor Terry Smith-Norton, the case she can’t forget involves a baby who was so badly beaten he suffered a stroke.
For Medford Detective Diane Sandler, it was interrupting a father who was having sex with his own daughter.
For Jackson County sheriff’s Detectives Jason Penn and Steve Bohn, it’s seeing the injuries inflicted on innocent children.
These protectors — and other police officers, detectives and prosecutors who deal with child physical and sexual abuse cases — see the worst humanity has to offer every day as part of their jobs. How do they do it? What keeps them going?
Maintaining eyes on the prize, they say: putting a stop to the abuse with a conviction.
“If I let emotions get in the way of doing a good, thorough investigation, it’s going to hamper what my end goal is — a successful prosecution,” Penn says. “So no matter how I feel about a suspect or how I feel about what they’ve done, no matter how I feel about who they’ve done it to, I’m going to try and get the best case.”
The moments that stand out
In 2015, Medford resident Petey Ray Henthorne was alone babysitting his girlfriend’s 1-year-old nephew. He said the baby fell off a bed during a diaper change.
But prosecutor Smith-Norton knew the baby’s injuries told a different story.
“The baby was bitten. The baby was strangled. He had fractures. He was bruised basically on every part of his body,” she says.
He even had bruises inside his ears. He suffered broken ribs, retinal bleeding and damage to his liver, pancreas and brain. The baby was life-flighted to a hospital in Portland, where he suffered a stroke. He’s been left with lifelong disabilities, including cerebral palsy.
“That case will probably stay with me forever,” Smith-Norton says. “I just have never seen a child that young beaten so badly.”
A senior deputy district attorney with the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office, Smith-Norton has handled cases involving child victims for almost 15 years.
During her closing argument in Henthorne’s trial, Smith-Norton described the full extent of the baby’s injuries and showed pictures.
“I remember having to pause in my closing because I was starting to tear up. You try to control it, but again we’re human,” Smith-Norton says. “I think the jury knows that, too. I remember looking at the jurors and there were several jurors who had tears in their eyes as well. It’s hard for any person to hear that kind of information and not have some kind of human emotional reaction.”
The first time she tried the case, it ended in a mistrial when jurors couldn’t agree whether Henthorne was guilty.
The defense argued a boy living in the house with known anger problems might have hurt the baby. But the boy wasn’t home when the baby was injured. Only Henthorne was there.
Smith-Norton tried again.
The second jury found Henthorne guilty, and he was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison.
Detective Sandler, who has been working on crimes involving children for the past 13 years, says the hardest cases often involve kids who are the same age as her own children.
In one case, a man had murdered a woman, then killed himself. Sandler went to a local elementary school to find the woman’s daughter.
Sandler interviewed the girl about whether she’d seen any domestic violence at home.
“And at the very end of that forensic interview she said, ‘Is my mom dead?’ And she was the same age as my oldest daughter and I instantly thought, ‘Wow. I’m going to change this girl’s life forever with this information that I’m going to give her. And what would my child say if she were sitting in that spot learning that her mom had been shot and killed that day?’ So that case still sticks with me. And there are others,” Sandler says.
Detective Bohn, who has years of child victim cases under his belt, says most of the time he’s so busy investigating cases he doesn’t let the emotions sink in.
But seeing injured kids up close takes a toll. Babies who’ve been shaken. Kids who’ve been beaten. Boys and girls who’ve been burned with scalding hot water by parents who lost their tempers.
“I’ll be honest with you. I really hate my job then,” he says. “The majority of days, I love my job. But there’s days where I’ve driven away from the hospital going, ‘I’m never doing this again. I’m done.’ And then as you finish the case, you know, you’re able to take a minute to step away and just gather your thoughts and put it together and move on.”
Bohn won’t take a break in the middle of the action, but when he has a minute, he’ll grab a coffee or check in with a co-worker to make sure that person is feeling OK.
“There are times where your emotions will get overloaded,” he says. “Where you put water in a bucket, after a while it’s going to overfill. You just put another case and another case and after a while your bucket’s getting full. And there’s times when your bucket’s full you’ve got to make sure that you take that time to step away.”
In his lowest moments, Bohn says thinking about what the kids have gone through keeps him going.
He’s not the one with flesh peeling off his hands because a mom got angry and shoved them under scalding hot water.
“I feel like it’s too much of an important job to walk away from,” Bohn says.
Talking with others in the field helps
Smith-Norton says prosecutors, detectives and others are part of a close-knit team that works on child victim cases, including the DA’s Office, the Southern Oregon High Tech Crimes Task Force, which finds evidence of child physical and sexual abuse on phones and computers, multiple law enforcement agencies and the Children’s Advocacy Center, where kids are interviewed and can get services to help them through the trauma.
“I think the best thing to do that I’ve realized is really to talk things through with others who do your work,” Smith-Norton says. “Just kind of sit down and decompress and go over the things. Talk about cases that you have in common. It’s nice to have that understanding and we won’t scar each other because we all know what we’re dealing with.”
Smith-Norton says talking about her work to people who don’t understand can be worse than not talking at all.
At soccer practice for her own kids, other parents sometimes ask her what she did at work that day. Then they get horrified looks on their faces when Smith-Norton describes a case.
“I think other people really don’t want to hear,” she says. “I think they want to believe that this stuff doesn’t happen and it doesn’t happen very much and it certainly doesn’t happen that often in their community. I think it just makes people feel better. And when you start talking about it, it sort of bursts that bubble and makes them think about things that they’d just rather not think about.”
Smith-Norton remembers a situation in her neighborhood where a registered sex offender was living next to a school bus stop.
A neighbor said she wasn’t going to tell her children about the sex offender because she didn’t want her kids to know about such things.
Smith-Norton had the opposite reaction: She told her kids a sex offender lived there and the house wasn’t safe.
Deputy District Attorney Zori Cook says she can stop a party in its tracks by telling people she works child abuse cases. People who were chatting with her one moment tend to beat a hasty retreat when they find out.
Composure is key in working a case
Though detectives and prosecutors may vent to co-workers behind closed doors, or prosecutors might make a passionate argument during a trial, they must keep all emotions in check when working on an investigation, they say.
Losing control in front of kids or suspects can hurt a case, Detective Sandler says.
“So I learned very early on in this caseload that you have to treat everybody with respect and a sense of calm because if you escalate, if you get crazy, the case gets crazy,” she says. “And so that starts with my first contact with the victim. I let the victim know that I believe them. I think that’s huge because a child needs to be told, ‘You’re believed.’”
Sandler says that doesn’t mean she believes every single detail of a victim’s story. She sorts through the details to determine what’s accurate during her investigation.
Sandler says she also remains calm when talking to witnesses, including other people in a household.
“If I make the mother feel like she’s the non-protective parent rather than the non-offending parent, that’s not going to help my case. That’s going to set her across from me in this very adversarial relationship. And that’s not what I want,” she says.
Sandler says having an understanding demeanor extends to her interview with a suspect, which usually comes last.
“I know that if I treat that person with respect and they’re still a human being, if I can give them that dignity while they sit there explaining the crimes they have committed to me, that’s a win,” she says. “Because with that confession, the case is much less likely to go to trial or to put the victim through additional trauma that they just don’t need.”
Sandler says tough interrogation tactics shown in the movies don’t work in the real world. Suspect interviews are usually audio and video recorded, and juries will see those videos in court.
Juries don’t like to see angry cops, Sandler says.
“The old good-cop, bad-cop of, you know, 20 years ago, that doesn’t work anymore. It doesn’t play out well. It doesn’t play out well at trial and it doesn’t play out well in investigations,” she says.
Detective Penn says he also tries to keep his emotions under wraps for the good of the case.
He can’t change what happened to a kid, but he can help put a stop to future abuse, he says.
Although he’s relatively new to the child victim caseload, Penn says the tools he learned as a police officer apply to detective work.
From day one on the job, police officers face situations that would make anybody feel irritated, frustrated and angry, he says. They get called names. People don’t cooperate with investigations, or actively try to block an investigation.
Like Sandler, Penn says he tries to be clear-headed, calm, thoughtful and patient — especially when interviewing a suspect and trying to get a confession.
Penn says it doesn’t matter whether he privately thinks the suspect’s actions are abhorrent and disgusting.
“I treat them with no judgment. I treat them kindly,” he says. “I treat them as I would want to be treated — and I have a pretty good ability to just kind of turn that off in my head and just be real with this person for a few minutes to get a pretty good statement from them.”
When it gets to be too much
Even with detectives and prosecutors working to control their emotions, the caseload can become overwhelming.
Prosecutor Smith-Norton started working on child abuse cases in 1999 but had to take a break in 2004. She returned to child victim cases in 2009.
“When I first did my first tour on child abuse I had a house full of young children — little girls — and over time it just started to affect me at home,” she says. “It was just very stressful as far as letting my children do things, trusting them to go to daycare. And I didn’t really realize that, but my husband was nice enough to point that out to me — repeatedly — that it was starting to affect me.”
Sandler has stuck with it over the years, but she says her job has changed how she parents her own kids. She wants to know the background of anyone who’s around her children.
“Well, I don’t trust anybody, so that includes the bus drivers, the teachers. I get names and dates-of-birth of everybody that comes into contact with my own children,” she says.
As her kids have grown into teenagers and Sandler amasses more years on the job, she knows many of the teens at school who have been victims of physical or sexual abuse.
She has seen the innermost details of families’ lives and knows how prevalent the problem is.
Smith-Norton has her moments when she thinks about quitting.
“Some days I go home and I think, ‘I have the best job in the world.’ Other days I go home and think, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know that I can continue to do this.’ It’s really hard for me, especially if I have a trial and I lose. That is probably the lowest for me because you watch the perpetrator. He’s emboldened,” Smith-Norton says.
She can’t help but feel she’s let down a child who has put faith in her.
“And you try to explain to the victim, ‘You know, look, it may not be because they didn’t believe you. It may be because they thought we didn’t have enough evidence, or we didn’t present it well.’ But it’s still a hard message to deliver to a child. ‘Sorry. It wasn’t guilty.’ And I’m getting better at it. It used to depress me for weeks,” Smith-Norton says.
When she loses, Smith-Norton says she ends up second-guessing every decision and move she made in a trial. Maybe if she had done or said something differently, the jury would have convicted.
“But you know, that’s how our jury system works. Sometimes it’s guilty, and sometimes it’s not guilty,” she says.
Why they keep doing it
Both detectives Bohn and Penn say they initially weren’t interested in working on child abuse cases for the special victims unit at the sheriff’s office. They wanted to work the high-profile homicide and robbery cases.
But when a person is murdered, it’s too late to help that victim, Bohn says. But he can help put a stop to child physical and sexual abuse.
Without someone stepping in, a child could become a victim again and again and again.
Penn says stopping the abuse and helping kids is the rewarding part of the job.
“I thought, just like Steve when he started, how chasing the robberies and the homicides was where I wanted to go,” he says. “However, when you see the number of cases come through the sheriff’s office and the need for investigators that are willing to do that caseload, I couldn’t help but be pulled into it for the sheer need of it. Once I got through my first couple cases, I actually really enjoyed working with the families, getting to know the families.”
Penn says he can’t imagine a scenario that would make him quit the child victim caseload.
“I thought, ‘Maybe if it happened to my own kids.’ Or something terrible happened and I was just too emotionally invested in something,” he says. “But I don’t even know anymore that that would stop me.”
Penn says there’s no rhyme or reason to why terrible things happen.
“But I know that I’m at least capable of helping fix it,” he says. “Moving forward, I think that I’m pretty good at my job. I’m up to the task. So I don’t know that I would be able to walk away. Maybe there is that pivotal moment, but I just can’t see just stopping this caseload. There’s too much. Too much to do. And too few people doing this. I’m not going to stop.”
Smith-Norton says the child victim caseload is different than other jobs at the DA’s Office, like the drug caseload.
If a prosecutor loses a drug possession case, an addicted suspect is likely to be back in jail in a week or a month, she says. The prosecutor gets another bite at the apple.
Smith-Norton says child abuse cases have a big impact on victims.
“And you also realize that if it’s a ‘not guilty,’ that person’s going back out into the community and that’s a really hard thing to deal with,” she says.
When young people express an interest in law enforcement careers, Detective Sandler doesn’t go into graphic details.
But she does warn them about the vicarious trauma they will experience.
“I’m fairly honest. I don’t give them specifics of the job, but I tell them that there are things they will never be able to un-see or un-hear. And if they feel that that’s something that they’re passionate about or something that they could do, then go forward,” she says. “Because we need good people in those positions.”
For Sandler, a girl she can’t forget keeps her going when the job seems overwhelming.
During interviews with investigators, kids are asked what made the physical or sexual abuse stop — if it has stopped.
“And we get a wide variety of answers,” Sandler says. “But hers sticks out to me because she said, ‘Your knock at the door.’ And it truly was. Her father was actually having sex with her when I knocked on her door to find out if she was OK.
“And so that kind of case keeps me going.”