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.
Fresh out of the academy in 1998, Detective Yancy Denning started his law enforcement career with the City of Madison Police Department. After meritoriously working his way up through every rank and position except Lieutenant, he left Madison PD in 2012 to pursue a career with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department.
Initially, he worked road patrol until 2015 when he moved into the detective office. At the time, he and two other detectives would work together on cases. Detective Denning was initially tasked with burglary and drug-related cases, but that was short-lived.
A mere month and a half into his detective work with the Sheriff’s Department, Det. Denning was assigned his first child molestation case. “That was my first experience with the Children’s Advocacy Center [of Southeastern Indiana],” says Det. Denning. “I was very thankful for them. The CAC has been a godsend.”
Soon thereafter one of his colleagues left for another job and then the other detective did too. Today, Det. Denning is the sole handler of every investigative case that comes into the department.
Det. Denning can rattle off every kind of case that’s being investigated right now. “If you name it, I deal with it. Drug cases, child molestation, battery, rape, attempted murder,” he says with a pause. “We have a guy in jail on attempted murder of an 18-month-old child,” he says with another soft pause. “I’ve unfortunately seen it all.
The staffing issue at the Department is not new or unique to Jefferson County. At nearly full employment in Indiana and elsewhere, staffing is challenging. “When I first started at Madison,” says Det. Denning, “they were hiring for one position and got ninety-eight applicants. Now we’re hiring and recently had just eight candidates show up for the written and agility test.”
Det. Denning notes there are a few candidates coming from the Academy, some of which have recently trained alongside CACSEI staff in Dallas. But the firehose of applicants has slowed to a trickle. “The times have changed. The perception of the police has changed. The pay and benefits aren’t always the best compared to other jobs where your life isn’t on the line,” he notes.
Listening to Det. Denning you can feel how close he ties himself with the work that must be done, the families and victims behind them, and the seemingly unstoppable caseload before him. “Sometimes people and their families feel the whole process doesn’t move fast enough,” he says. “But we have protocols in place.” Those protocols include measured responses for, among other things, when an emergency forensic interview needs to happen at CACSEI.
“If the event just happened, we ideally collect physical evidence at a hospital and do the forensic interview while memories are fresh,” he says. Often, however, children and youth come forward days, weeks, months, or even years after the molestation occurred. In those cases, the physical evidence is gone and the only evidence is usually a child’s testimony. “We can’t just go pick someone up right then and there,” says Det. Denning. “It’s a he or she-said versus he or she-said situation then. We have to tie everything together and the older the case is, the harder it is to prove in court.”
Encouragingly, justice can still be served in those cases, as witnessed in a recent case involving a 5-year-old female. “I had two cases recently where the suspects took a plea deal and got sentenced to prison,” he says. One suspect was sentenced to twelve years in prison and another ten.
Recalling the case of this little girl, Det. Denning developed a sense of pride in his voice, not for himself, but for the girl.
“In both of those cases, I didn’t have physical evidence. But the victim’s statement — one in particular from a 5-year-old female who gave the best interview in a CAC I’ve ever been a part of. She wasn’t emotional or afraid. She spoke very— Det. Yancy Denning, Jefferson Co. Sheriff’s Office
matter-of-fact. Her story was spot-on with what she told her mom the night it happened and as it was at CACSEI. Those interviews were key componentsthose cases.”
“A lot of people don’t understand why their case is taking so long or what we’re doing. It’s also not the only case we’re working on. That’s the rough part — trying to balance all that stuff,” says Det. Denning. Police lab work, review from prosecutors and legal teams, more evidence gathering, coordinating witnesses, and scheduling court around Constitutionally and legally-required timelines can take an immense amount of time. Especially on older cases.
“Personally, it’s been a struggle. I try to pride myself on doing the best I can but sometimes I feel like I’m letting people down because cases all add up,” says Det. Denning.
“I was in— Det. Yancy Denning
trialall last week and had training on Monday. It’s just me [handling these cases]. Court, follow-up phone calls, it all adds up.”
“When I am in court, I can’t do anything else. I also can’t work around the clock. I feel like it takes me a long time to get things done,” he says with the weight of a person carrying the world’s, or at least Jefferson County’s, problems.
Then he remarks with a sense of resilience, “But, I’m still plugging away.”
Backing up Det. Denning and law enforcement officers around the region are DCS caseworkers like Laurel Wahl and CACSEI. “Everything about CACSEI makes the victim more at ease,” notes Det. Denning. “They’re trained much better than we are in interviewing child victims. And it’s not like I’m handing them off, either. I’m in the next room over and if something needs
Secure and discreet earpieces and closed-circuit television allow officers, caseworkers, prosecutors, and other team members to watch the interview live without the child ever having to see them. Forensic interviewers in the room can hear questions from the team in the other room.
CACSEI operates a satellite location in Madison. The expense of equipment and travel for CACSEI to operate the Madison office takes a financial burden off Jefferson County, albeit at the expense of the CAC. But it’s worth it, because as Det. Denning points out, “We don’t have to spend two hours driving there and back to do interviews in the day.” The time saved allows Det. Denning and other law enforcement officers more time on cases, more time in court, and more time on patrol.
In every case, Det. Denning knows he can turn to CACSEI to make sure kids feel comfortable and willing to share the sometimes haunting memories of what happened to them. “Kids are usually taught at an early age the police are good. However, sometimes I’m at a restaurant in uniform and you’ll hear a parent say, ‘Oh if you’re not good they’re going to arrest you’,” says Det. Denning. “That scares kids to be hesitant around us. I know the parents are joking around, but the kids don’t always know. One of the greatest tools we have to help bridge those fears when it comes to investigating cases is the forensic interview specialists and child/family advocates.”
“I don’t think we’d get as many families and cases through the judicial process without this type of teamwork and collaboration,” says Det. Denning