After a 12-year-old girl miscarried a baby and Harlingen police found the fetus’ bones buried in a backyard, events were set in motion that would lead to Rafael Coronado Jr. being sentenced to seven life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Through a series of coincidences, the case also eventually led to a new approach recently implemented by the Cameron County District Attorney’s Office to better deal with child abuse cases — especially more efficient communication with victims and their families.
Coronado, 43, faced three counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child, three counts of indecency with a child and also a law that was new in 2008 — one count of continuous sexual assault of a child.
Coronado’s case was tried in 2010 by state prosecutors Brandy Bailey and Stephanie Rollins, who got a guilty conviction on the case. The Harlingen man was found guilty of sexually assaulting the young girl from the time she was 3 until 12.
Bailey and Rollins didn’t know it at the time, but the case they prosecuted against Coronado was the beginning of a relationship that would grow into the women running the newly created Cameron County District Attorney’s Child Abuse Unit that became official July 1.
The unit has two prosecutors — and another team member — that will specifically investigate and prosecute the child abuse cases.
“We went and met with the family and met with this little girl, who you could imagine was completely a mess,” said Bailey, a prosecutor with the new Cameron County District Attorney’s Child Abuse Unit, as she talked about the Coronado case. “At that point, I was the second or third prosecutor to come across this case and she didn’t want to talk to me or speak to me because she was let down by so many of the adults in her life and didn’t know that I was going to be any different.”
Bailey prosecuted the case, but she was left alone to try it after the first chair prosecutor had to leave the case to work on a bigger case, she said.
That’s where Bailey and Rollins, who was also named as a prosecutor to the Child Abuse Unit that formed this month, first teamed up.
“I went looking for someone to try it with and thankfully Stephanie doesn’t know how to say no,” Bailey said with a laugh.
Both women said they’d never forget the Coronado case, and it also set the tone for their work and mission with the Child Abuse Unit.
“From the way I understand it, before this it was sort of a crap shoot as far as what case ended up where,” Rollins said. “An abuse case would be filed in one of the district courts and then whatever prosecutor was assigned to that court — and on duty — got that case.”
But under Cameron County District Attorney Luis V. Saenz’s direction, that will no longer be the case for multiple reasons that culminate in the well-being of young victims of abuse.
“What Mr. Saenz has done is he realized the child abuse case is a little bit different because you have a more sensitive victim. You have a minor who may or may not be comfortable testifying. You have to take into account their potential future mental health as well as their current mental state,” Rollins said. “These cases are also often difficult to investigate and prove. They do require special attention.
“Now, two prosecutors can focus exclusively on that.”
Aside from Rollins and Bailey, the unit also has an investigator, Victor Cortez, who like them has specialized training in child abuse cases. Rollins and Bailey are also board members at the Cameron County Children’s Advocacy Center, Monica’s House and Maggie’s House. The center is a non-profit agency serving abuse victims and their families.
And in addition to providing special, immediate and consistent attention to these cases, it will provide county-wide training to law enforcement and school districts, which will encourage a streamlined, sensitive process that aims to minimize the emotional impact on a victim, particularly the trauma of having to relive abuse.
“It’s difficult enough for a child to work up the courage to talk about abuse,” Saenz said. “We have an extremely vulnerable victim having to repeatedly share some very private information with numerous strangers.”
Both Rollins and Bailey said the new unit will also be more upfront with victims and their families about how the process works.
“The goal is to help break the gap between the District Attorney’s Office and the advocacy center because it can take months for police to investigate these crimes and eventually send them to the grand jury before a case ever reaches the District Attorney’s Office,” Rollins said. “That’s not anybody’s fault. That’s just the criminal justice process.”
Even after a case makes it to the hands of a prosecutor, child abuse cases make up roughly 20 percent of court dockets, she said, adding that in 2012 there were 589 cases of abandoning or endangering children and physical or sexual abuse of children — an increase from 248 in 2010.
“The number of child abuse cases that reach our office continues to dramatically increase,” she said, adding that statistics show that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused in some way by the time they reach 18 years old.
And victims of abuse and their families often don’t know what they’re in for when it comes to the criminal justice system.
“What we’re hoping to do is to not only reduce that amount of time by making the different agencies work more efficiently together, but to also bridge the gap to where they are being contacted more consistently along the way, where they have access to our phone numbers from the beginning so they are not caught off guard three months later,” Rollins said.
The immediate reaction, though, she said, is to immediately comfort a child by telling them everything will get better right away because a child made an outcry and an alleged abuser was arrested.
“Our goal is to not lie to them through it (the criminal justice process) but to be upfront with them all of the time in any way we physically can to make the process as comfortable as we can, to make sure that they are being offered every service our state and county can provide to them,” Rollins said.
Executive Director of the Cameron County Child Advocacy Center Anna de la Cruz said the new unit will play a positive and crucial role across Cameron County.
“I think it’s really, really important to have prosecutors or people inside the District Attorney’s Office that will specialize in these types of cases because they do involve children,” she said. “In order for somebody to do this type of work there has to be compassion. Their heart has to be in healing child victims of any sort of crime.”
And that’s why one of the most important aspects of the new unit will be to reduce the amount of time a child has to re-tell the story of abuse against them.
“One of the things we are trying to eliminate is re-victimizing the child,” said Rollins, adding that she, Bailey and Cortez will foster an environment that teaches victims that they were right to say something and that they never did anything wrong.
“We want the community to be able to say (to the victims): You did the right thing. You’re not in trouble,” Rollins said.