This story is part of a continuing series of Hometown Heroes. CACSEI is highlighting the work of regional child protection workers, advocates, law enforcement, and allies in our work against child abuse.
“We had a suspect in an alleged child molestation case. I was a jail officer at the time and I can remember [the suspect]. His was the case that got everyone talking about the CAC,” says Detective Sergeant Ricky Harris. “I couldn’t even imagine trying to work that case without the CAC.” But, in 2008, detectives did work that case without CACSEI. Harris is glad he doesn’t have to do it alone today.
A Jefferson County native, it’s clear Harris loves his home. He’s raising his son and daughter ages five and two here. In his adult life, he’s left the county long enough to study at Vincennes University. He enrolled out of high school, worked for the VU police department for a year in 2005, graduated, and jumped at a patrol officer position with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office right after.
Harris worked patrol and jail officer shifts with the Sheriff’s Office until he was hired into the Madison Police Department in 2009. “When I went to college I wanted two things: to be a K9 handler and then a detective, and both of those were opportunities the City offered.”
Harris, who still has many years of service ahead of him, has already accomplished both. He worked with his K9 partner, Max, until 2018 when Max retired at the age of ten. That same year he was promoted to Detective, about a decade into his career.
For two years at the start of his career, CACSEI didn’t exist, but neither did his need for it professionally. His patrol work didn’t often extend beyond an initial call and response or monitoring the jail. As a Detective, however, Harris primarily handles child abuse and assault cases. He is thankful for CACSEI every time he begins an investigation.
“I sat down with an adult, female rape victim. She told me, ‘It’s hard to talk about this with you.'” An honest claim that’s not hard to understand. A woman who has suffered rape must summon a lot of courage to talk to a man, in uniform, and wearing a gun. For children, it can be insurmountable.
“We receive a lot of training on apprehending criminals and staying safe while making arrests. We tend to have a factual attitude — we want to know what happened and how,” he says. As empathetic and professional officers may be, Harris adds, “We’re not known for always being emotionally supportive people.”
Harris now has the benefit of not balancing the investigation and case management with the challenging empathetic work. “Now, on recent cases, I can say, ‘I have some professionals for you to talk to’, and then we go to the CAC,” he says.
It might sound harsh or unsympathetic that officers might try to abstract themselves from the work of talking to victims. But like any profession, everyone has skills, talents, and training for specific tasks. Officers and detectives are already tasked with a lot. It also doesn’t mean officers don’t feel a heavy burden.
Madison, he says, is a generally small town. “People would probably be shocked at the extent of the sheer volume of these cases a town our size has.” Halfway through 2020, the city of 13,000 residents has produced Harris with 20 cases, or about one or two a week just for him. Another detective also receives a similar caseload. “Most of my cases are child abuse, child neglect, or child sexual abuse,” he says, adding, “Meth, specifically, is involved in probably 90% of these cases.”
Despite the gravity of the work, Harris has been on the force long enough to see kids grow up and are now in college or adults. “It’s interesting to see how some repeat the cycle [of abuse], and some that make it out,” he says. Though he isn’t certain what about them individually means some kids grow up to be abusers themselves.
Research is clear, however, that children who are abused are themselves more likely to be abusers later in life. Abuse rates increase as a result of decreased earnings, education, and a host of unresolved mental health issues. However, counseling, health exams, and a true sense of closure immediately following disclosure — which begins with a comprehensive forensic interview — is shown to break the cycle of abuse.
“Without a doubt, child cases are the hardest to work from a stress level,” he says. “I get a few days here and there off, but I’m on-call 24/7. When I get calls from the Department of Child Services about a new child victim or abuse or sexual assault, you feel the weight on your shoulders.”
“You know that the next few hours are critical because what you do can seriously impact that child’s life for better or worse. It’s a lot of responsibility when that phone rings,” he says. “And these cases are the majority of what I get as a detective.”
“Kids cases are hard, professionally,” says Harris. “When I get that call, I think about how hard I’d pursue this case if this were my son or daughter. This is an innocent child, and what happens next is up to me.”