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North Idaho counties report increase of sexual assault

Hagadone News Network | May 7, 2024 1:05 AM

As reports of sexual assault increase throughout North Idaho, advocates, law enforcement and prosecutors are trying to keep up.

“Since our community is growing, so does violent crime,” said Leslie Johnson, director of development and communication for Safe Passage. “How do we, as a community, respond to that?”

Based in Coeur d’Alene, Safe Passage offers a 24-hour helpline, emergency shelter, legal advocacy and counseling, to people experiencing abuse throughout the five northern counties.

Last year, more than 1,300 people received services and support from Safe Passage. The nonprofit sheltered 260 adults and children, and provided a total of 1,802 safe nights in the shelter and area hotels in 2023, which was a 17% increase over the prior year.

In addition, their children’s advocacy center performed 208 child forensic interviews, and they typically provide services for an abused child every single day.

But it’s hard to determine whether the increased numbers are due to more crimes occurring or simply more people reporting crimes.

“It’s a mix,” Johnson said. “As we get the awareness out, more people are sharing the (helpline) number with their friends and family.”

Shoshone County — More people need advocates

In order to devote more resources to investigating sex crimes, the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office is looking to hire an additional detective.

Up until recently, the number of people turning to the Shoshone County Crisis and Resource Center had held steady, but executive director Kellie Lavigne said that’s been changing. 

“We’ve seen an uptick in our sexual-assault reported cases in the last year and a half,” Lavigne said.

The number of people using the crisis resource center totaled 205 in 2022 and 207 in 2023. Just two years prior, the number of people served by the center totaled 167.

Going through the process of witness testimony in the criminal justice system can be a burden for victims, Lavigne said, and with few mental health providers in Shoshone County, the wait to see a counselor can be long. 

“What we want to do is provide support and walk with them through the criminal justice system. We’re at all hearings. We’re with them when they have to meet the prosecutor. We’re with them if they’re mediating a settlement. We’re deeply entrenched,” Lavigne said.  

In addition to supporting victims, the center also serves what they call secondary victims — family and friends who help after traumatic events. 

"They’re victims, too,” Lavigne said, adding that people need not report a crime to use the service. “We’re available to everybody whether they want to go through law enforcement or not. We’re not going to push them.”

Boundary County — More felony crimes committed against minors

Boundary County prosecutors are reportedly seeing fewer misdemeanor child endangerment cases, but prosecuting attorney Andrakay Pluid said her office has seen an uptick in felony crimes against minors.

“These cases are getting worse, as they are becoming extremely perverse in regards to the facts of the case,” she said. “More of these cases are felony cases, which adds a greater burden to the court, prosecutors and law enforcement.”

It’s not that Boundary County’s overall crime rate is increasing, Pluid said. Rather, she believes more crimes against children are being reported to authorities than in the past.

Bonner County — 200% increase since 2017

Bonner County has also seen an increase in the number of people requiring victim services.

In the five-year period after 2017, victim services provided by the LillyBrooke Family Justice Center increased by more than 200%. Based in Sandpoint, the center provides crisis intervention, assistance and community referrals in a centralized, trauma-informed setting.

Between October 2022 and September 2023, the number of clients helped by the center increased by more than 81%.

“What this data tells us is that there has been a significant increase in the number of clients coming to LillyBrooke for assistance either through criminal cases or walk-ins,” said Peggy Sherbon, director of investigations and victim services for the Bonner County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. “The amount of services provided to those clients has risen, and the addition of child forensic interviews has seen a steady increase each year.”

While the caseload has increased, Sherbon said staffing has not. But that’s changing.

Partially funded through a federal grant from the Idaho Council on Domestic Violence and Victim Assistance, the LillyBrooke Center recently received a Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant through Idaho State Police to fund another victim services position.

“The additional staff will help to ease the burden on current staff and give us the ability to continue to find ways to improve our services and commitment to the community,” Sherbon said.

Sherbon also oversees the county's LillyBrooke Center, where forensic interviews are conducted. The center aims to create a child-friendly setting for young victims.

“This not only strengthens the integrity of investigations, it helps to minimize the trauma to the child who experienced the abuse,” Sherbon said. “When I began my career with victims, kids couldn’t wait to leave my office. Now they don’t want to leave. This tells me our efforts to reduce the trauma the criminal justice system can unintentionally inflict on kids is working.”

Bonner County Prosecutor Louis Marshall said his office has worked to improve prosecution of sexual assaults through victim’s services, staff training and even specially trained dogs that provide support to victims, especially child victims, during hearings. But challenges remain.

“Prosecuting these cases has become harder than ever due to unrealistic expectations of jurors who expect forensic evidence when these crimes are rarely if ever reported right away,” Marshall said. “We have a huge mountain to overcome to achieve convictions.”

Marshall said his team is dedicated to prosecuting these cases, no matter how challenging.

“I am proud of my team for the commitment they have to our community’s kids and sexual assault victims,” he said.

Leslie Johnson said the key to mitigating domestic and sexual violence in North Idaho is education — and it must start early. Through its teen outreach program, Safe Passage provides education to local students on healthy relationships, consent and more.

“It all starts with prevention,” Johnson said. “We’re doing education in middle schools and high schools. We want to be in the elementary schools.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence or sexual abuse, call Safe Passage Violence Prevention Center’s 24-hour helpline: 208-664-9303.

For 24-hour help, call the Shoshone County Crisis and Resource Center: 208-556-0500.

    County criminal charges per capita for 2023 tracked by the State of Idaho Judicial Branch. Counties beginning in "A" to "L."

    County criminal charges per capita for 2023 tracked by the State of Idaho Judicial Branch. Counties beginning in "C" to "W."
    Kona, pictured left, and Ken, pictured right, pose for a photo on the steps of the LillyBrooke Family Justice Center with Peggy Sherbon, the director of the Bonner County Prosecutor's Investigations and Victim Service Division. The two facility dogs are used during victim’s interviews and court testimony, especially in cases involving youth. Photo by CAROLINE LOBSINGER