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.
In the early 1990s, Gena (pronounced like “Jenna”) Allen’s parents made her a deal. In exchange for covering half the cost of her college education, Allen could go to college, but not for Criminal Justice as she intended. Her parents were keen to see her pursue a teaching career as they had. So, in 1993 Allen stepped foot on campus at Purdue University. There she studied elementary education and four years later on December 20, 1997, she started her new career — as a Dearborn County Sheriff’s Deputy.
“I always knew,” she says. “But my parents wanted me to get a college education so I had a fall-back if something went wrong.” In 22 years, nothing has gone wrong and Allen still works at the Dearborn County Sheriff’s Department. For the first 18 years she patrolled county roads and city streets before becoming a Detective in July 2016.
In 22 years of service, Allen remembers a time before and after CAC Southeast served Dearborn County. “I remember my first case with a kid — it was an abuse case. Back then when we had to talk to them, we weren’t trained how. We didn’t know how to ask the right questions.”
I’ve learned stuff over time, but it’s come a long way. These kids are more comfortable at the CAC.”
One reason is an increasing resistance to trust the police at all, in any circumstances. “The CAC has been the best thing for these kids who are victims of abuse and sexual assault. To be able to put everything out there if they choose to. If they’re talking to a person in a uniform, especially if their parents don’t like the police and tell them the police are bad, they shut down.”
It’s not surprising that Allen and so many law enforcement people like her recognize their job is getting harder despite advancements in technology, safety gear, training, and techniques. “People not liking police has gotten worse. If you look at stuff happening around us, being in a uniform is the most dangerous job around…it’s a target on our back.”
Regardless, the job is clearly deep in Allen’s soul. “I’m happy when I can get justice for a child,” she says with clarity about what she does and who she is as a woman and a Detective. She cites the case of Diane and Timothy Combs, two foster parents sentenced earlier this year to decades in jail. The Combs were found on footage abusing four foster children, one adopted child, and three children they were babysitting in their Aurora home. They pled guilty to numerous counts of battery against the children’s heads, bodies, and genitals.
“I think about those kids a lot and how well they’re doing now and it makes me feel so good that they get to have peace in their life,” says Allen. “I love my job and every time I can make a case where someone goes to jail and these kids become safe is a proud moment.”
Alternatively, “the worst part of this job is getting a case and not being able to hold someone accountable because there’s not enough evidence,” she says.
Unlike television dramas where cases unfold neatly in 42 minutes, real-world police work is much more methodical and thorough. “DNA tests on TV come back in a minute,” she says with a slight laugh. DNA tests can take weeks in most police labs. Sometimes because of staffing issues, sometimes high caseloads, but often because it has to be done carefully.
“I try to be thorough in my investigations, and that takes time. I want them to be right,” she says. To kids, those details may not matter much. “But I think parents sometimes get frustrated when they think it’s moving slow. But, also, they’re more understanding when you explain what’s happening. Getting it done right means a lot,” she says.
Allen is one of two detectives in Dearborn County not assigned to “special crimes”, a unit devoted mostly to drug-related offenses. As CACSEI and organizations around the country work to tell kids abuse is not okay, that sexual assault is not okay, more kids are coming forward with valid allegations.
“In the time I’ve been a detective, the caseload has gotten heavier and heavier. I think it’s because of CACSEI. And there are more children being brought in to that atmosphere to talk about what happened to them,” says Allen.
“It’s weird, but sometimes I like to check up on cases without contacting anyone. I want to see how they’re doing because I often never see them [the kids]. They may not even know I exist. That’s fine, but I remember them all,” she says.
“I try to check up on the ones that impacted me the most, and more often than not I feel good after that.”
Thinking back on a career of cases and investigations, Allen recalls the Combs foster care case again. “Just like the two boys in the foster parents’ case. After the foster parents took a plea deal, the kids have been moved to a new home and are in the process of being adopted.”