Chester detective part of Windsor team that focuses on child sex abuse cases

ON THE COVER: From left, Det. Matt Wilson, SIU head Julie Gaudette, Victim’s Advocate Pam Weigel, SIU coordinator Katie Ouelette, Springfield Det. Allison Novasel, SAAPC liaison Cindy Morancy and Deputy State’s Attorney David Cahill.

by Stephen Seitz

Sex abuse is a crime that carries emotional damage that can go well beyond the physical crime. And making a case against an offender can be a difficult process that reopens wounds and prolongs the pain, but a number of state and local agencies including police departments have come together to find ways to investigate and prosecute these crimes while protecting young victims from continuing trauma.

Chester Det. Matt Wilson./Photos by Stephen Seitz

Recently, the Select Board had an opportunity to accept a $40,000 grant that would allow other area towns to benefit from the investigative services of Chester Detective Matt Wilson by assigning him to the White River Junction-based Windsor County Special Investigations Unit 18 hours a week for the current fiscal year. He works with the SIU now, but only on Chester cases. 

No formal action was taken by the Select Board and the grant opportunity slipped away. “It never came up on the agenda again” following an initial approach, said Select Board member Tom Bock. “We never acted. Some of us couldn’t decide, and a couple were against it. I heard the police department was going to try again with another grant application.” As of Friday, no decision has been made on whether to reapply for the grant but the SIU is hoping to revisit the proposal by early September.

By all accounts, Chester Det. Matt Wilson is adept at investigating cases of child sexual abuse, skilled at building rapport and understanding with victims. For the past two and a half years, he  has been investigating these cases with the Windsor County Special Investigations Unit, which is comprised of nine state and local agencies that address every facet of the crime and the victim’s needs, from investigations, medical and mental health care, child and victim’s advocacy, prosecutions and corrections. The SIU offers a safe setting that helps to mitigate the trauma  a child victim must experience by limiting the number of times he or she has to recount the incident. The unit also works with adult victims.

“I investigated one of these cases years ago with (former Chester Police) Chief Shane Harris,” said Wilson, who joined the Chester Police Department in 2002, “and I just kept up with it.” 

Other members of the SIU want to continue to utilize Wilson’s abilities on a wider basis. Springfield Det. Allison Novasel works with Wilson on the SIU and lives in Chester. “Matt’s being assigned to the SIU is a huge asset,” she said. “The town won’t be losing him at all. As a taxpayer, I’d be happy to have someone from my community serve on the SIU. It goes beyond the dollar sign.”

And Wilson said the town wouldn’t suffer from his absences, since he has always had to balance his duties between the town and the specialized investigations. “I don’t think my work for the town will be affected at all,” he said.

“These are tough cases to prove. A lot of time, you lack physical evidence and it (the case) falls on the victim, their disclosure and their credibility. When you have multiple agencies working together for one common goal, working as a team, it … leads to better outcomes.”
Julie Gaudette
Director, Windsor SIU

1 in 4 girls; 1 in 6 boys

There is little doubt of the need for such investigators, SIU director Julie Gaudette said, adding that “1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be a victim of child sexual abuse before the age of 18. Of all those, only 1 in 10 will ever talk about it.” According to SIU data, 35 to 40 percent of offenses are committed by other youth, which often prompts investigations into the accused offender’s experiences since they often were the victims of similar abuse.

“Matt’s one of those investigators who wants to be involved all the way,” Gaudette said. “If an offender is really young, then we want to know how that happened.”

The SIU and the state Department for Children and Families investigate cases of severe child abuse, and sexual crimes committed against children and adults. Last year, the SIU investigated 136 cases involving children, and 20 involving adults. Of those, 18 child sexual abuse and 17 physical abuse cases came from Chester.

Chester Police Chief Richard Cloud said that is about average. But this year, the pace has picked up. According to the SIU, the Springfield district, which includes Chester, has twice the state rate of abuse and neglect.

“We’ve had 56 cases already this year,” said Cindy Morancy, who serves as the coordinator for the Springfield Area Parent-Child Center, which is part of the SIU network and provides services for Springfield-area families, including Chester. Children are often interviewed there.

Most cases come to the SIU through those who are required to report signs of abuse: medical professionals, school personnel, social service workers and even members of the clergy. Of course, anyone can report if there is reason to believe a child is being abused. For more information on reporting child abuse, click here. The telephone number for the Child Protection Line is 1-800-649-5285. All reports are confidential. A social worker then follows up, and a supervisor later determines whether the state should intervene.

Tough cases to prove


audette said, “These are tough cases to prove. A lot of time, you lack physical evidence and it (the case) falls on the victim, their disclosure and their credibility. When you have multiple agencies working together for one common goal, working as a team, it … leads to better outcomes.” She added that those “better outcomes” don’t necessarily translate into prosecutions and prison. “It may mean treatment for the victim and treatment for the offender, taking the best route to prevent the offense from happening again and serving the victims and families.”

“The reason we have an SIU ,” said Deputy State’s Attorney David Cahill, the prosecutor assigned to the SIU, “is that, historically, sex-based offenses have met with a mixed response. SIUs are an effort to get all the players on the same page.” This multi-agency approach is needed to ensure consistent results and to protect the victim all the way through the system.

Wilson has been trained to interview a child about what happened in such a way so to not appear threatening, to avoiding leading questions and to gather the greatest amount of  reliable information from children of all ages. Referring to the training known as “forensic interviewing,” Wilson said “It allows us to build a better rapport.”

Forensic interviewing and other measures are taken to ensure that the child involved can give investigators all the information they need without having to appear in court. “Rules of evidence allow a videotaped statement from a child victim to spare the ordeal of a courtroom,” Cahill said.

Victim advocate Pam Weigel’s job is to watch out for the victims’ interest throughout the proceedings, and beyond. She supports victims in court, provides short-term counseling, keeps up to date on a case status and helps get restitution, among other things.

“My role doesn’t end,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and now I’m dealing with the children and grandchildren of some of my original clientele.”

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About the Author: Steve Seitz is an author, journalist and film critic based in Springfield,VT. He has reported local news in the Upper Connecticut River Valley for many years. Steve has been interviewed on NPR's "The Story" for his knowledge of cinematic music. He also has interviewed such cinematic luminaries as James Earl Jones, Jerry Lewis, James Whitmore, Matthew Lewis ("Neville Longbottom" from the Harry Potter films), and an original cast member from every "Star Trek" series, among many others. He is working on other novels.

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