Lincoln County authorities believe that recent media attention on local and national abuse cases, especially those involving child victims, has motivated communities across the region to more frequently report such instances.
The Lincoln County Coalition Against Child Abuse has already investigated more than 100 cases this year according to Sherry Reinhardt, executive director of both LCCACA and the countyâ€™s Child Advocacy Center.
A majority of the reported abuse cases involved child victims who were between the ages of 7 and 12 authorities said.
Of the 130 cases that the organization has reviewed since January, a much higher number than the 98 total cases reported in 2010, authorities revealed that 91 incidents have involved sexual abuse.
Reinhardt explained that in most instances of abuse, whether sexual or physical, the suspect and victim not only know each other but are related in some way. In the last year, close to half of offenders were victimsâ€™ relatives, and parents and step-parents ranked at the top of the offender list authorities said.
However, this information doesnâ€™t surprise Reinhardt at all.
She told the Times-News that she understands that most offender-victim relationships involve some level of trust. She also noted a phrase, particularly regarding sexual assault, that has stuck with her over the years.
â€œA convicted child molester once said something in a TV interview on the Oprah Winfrey show I found to be true,â€ she said, â€˜Without trust, sexual abuse is not possible.â€™ â€œ
In addition, Reinhardt believed that recent headlines surrounding the Caylee Anthony and Zahra Baker murder cases have opened more eyes to the existene of such evil acts and propelled individuals everywhere to report abuse on a more frequent basis.
Both Reinhardt and Sheriffâ€™s Detective Seth Bailey, one of two full-time detectives assigned to sexual assault cases, agreed that an increase in reported abuse could directly and largely be linked to individualsâ€™ enhanced awareness and education.
Sheriffâ€™s Det. Sally Dellinger also investigates sexual assault cases within the county.
â€œWe have a good working relationship with the CAC,â€ Bailey noted.
Sheriff David Carpenter, whoâ€™s also quite aware of Lincoln Countyâ€™s recent increase in sexual assault cases, noted that while awareness and education may have contributed to more reports of abuse, he and his command staff have a close-knit relationship with CAC.
â€œWe are following up on everything coming in there,â€ he said.
While Lincolnton Police Chief Rodney Jordan said that thereâ€™s no set officer whoâ€™s assigned to work abuse cases that occur within the city, a team of different high-ranking officers within the agency often work to share the case load.
According to 2011 statistics from the CAC, most Lincoln County sex offenders are 18 and up.
However, 11 suspects were found to be under 18 and ages for 25 offenders have yet to be determined at this point, Reinhardt noted.
Lincoln County isnâ€™t the only county in the region to reflect an increased number of abuse cases this year.
Cleveland Countyâ€™s CAC Executive Director Terri Bullock told Reinhardt officials have investigated 70 cases to date while Gaston County CAC Executive Director Laurie McClure has 154 reported cases to date.
Both numbers are up from last year including a significant rise in Gaston Countyâ€™s numbers which were nearly a third less in September 2010. It is not known exactly how many cases were reported in Cleveland County at this time last year.
Lincoln County is currently one of 38 counties in the state reflecting more than 100 registered sex offenders, according to the sex offender registry on the N.C. Department of Justice website.
However, the NC DOJ website noted that suspects with a â€œpendingâ€ status have not been included in the stateâ€™s statistics.
North Carolina contains 100 counties and has close to 2,000 convicted sex offenders serving current prison sentences.
Lincoln County Sheriffâ€™s Office authorities noted that 10 of the 131 inmates currently in the Harven A. Crouse Detention Center are awaiting trials for sexual offenses ranging from rape and statutory rape to indecent liberties with a child and crimes against nature, among other charges.
No particular charge heavily outweighs another according to the Sheriffâ€™s Office.
Suspectsâ€™ bond amounts range from $50,000 to â€œno bond,â€ and one individual in particular has been behind bars since September 2009, authorities said.
According to the Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public website, among the three main populated sections of the county, Lincolnton houses the highest number of offenders at 57, a majority of whom have been convicted of indecent liberties or indecent liberties with a minor.
In addition, Lincolntonâ€™s stats lead largely over Denver and Vale, with nearly five times as many registered offenders. Currently Vale has 12 registered offenders while the registry only lists nine current addresses for sex offenders in the Denver area.
In the most recent Lincoln County sex abuse case to go to trial, 53-year-old New York resident Francis Finster was sentenced to more than 300 months in state prison after he pled guilty on Sept. 2 to first-degree rape and felony child abuse involving a sexual act.
However, before he can be placed behind N.C. bars, he must first finish out the 20-year prison term he received in January for similar crimes in New York.
In addition to sexual abuse, LCCACA and the CAC have recorded a number of cases in the county this year involving physical abuse, neglect and â€œwitness to assaultâ€ as well as a handful of incidents that have been listed as â€œother.â€
LCCACA and the CAC are just two of a number of agencies and services across Lincoln County that are a part of the â€œmultidisciplinary teamâ€ assisting law enforcement officials and the District Attorneyâ€™s Office in establishing â€œa child-focused approachâ€ to abuse case investigations.
Additional professional groups include the school system, Child Protective Services, Mental Health Services, Pathways and Carolinas Medical Center-Lincoln, among others.
JENNA-LEY HARRISON, Staff Writer