Hamilton House sees over 500 child abuse cases in 6 months, a 4% increase over 2020 numbers

Ronak Patel
Fort Smith Times Record
Child abuse reports in the Fort Smith area have increased in the past year. Laurie Burnett, executive director of Hamilton House, , gave numbers that show a 4% increase in child abuse in the area. The Fort Smith nonprofit has primarily seen sexual abuse cases, which are usually found to be committed by a relative.

The number of reported sexual abuse cases have increased in the Fort Smith area over the course of 2021, but experts say they continue to usually be committed by a family member of the victim.

The case of Isiah Thompson, a Fort Smith church volunteer who was recently sentenced in Sebastian County court to 20 years in prison for sexual abuse of a minor under 14, was statistically among the minority of perpetrators. He was not related to the victim.

Laurie Burnett, executive director of Hamilton House, the Fort Smith nonprofit that helps abused children, said about 90% of sexual abuse cases are found to be committed by a relative.

Burnett also said they have already seen an increase in the number of child abuse cases since 2010 when there were 340. In the year 2020, Hamilton House saw 979 cases, a 188% increase. As of July 2021, Hamilton House has seen 504 child abuse cases. It's a 4% increase over the same period last year when there were 485 cases by the end of June. Hamilton House's cases are primarily made up of sexual abuse.

Burnett explained the rise in cases doesn’t necessarily mean there is a rise in child abuse. The increase in cases could be a result of the rise of awareness of the issue and creating partnerships with agencies. Hamilton House receives referrals from the Arkansas State Police’s Crimes Against Children Division and the Arkansas Department of Health and Human Services.  

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Despite an increase in cases, Burnett believes child abuse still is under reported.  

“People don't want to talk about it, and they keep it secret, they think that it's shameful and so it's not talked about, it’s talked about more now than it used to be,” Burnett said. 

Laurie Burnett is the executive director of Hamilton House in Fort Smith, a nonprofit group that is court approved to gather forensic evidence related to sexual abuse cases.

Sexual abuse of a child is more likely to be like a recent case in Oklahoma involving Michael David Jackson. He was found guilty of abusing a child under the age of 12. The child was a close relative of Jacksons. The parents of the child relied on Jackson to take care of their child while they were at work.

With Thompson, it is seen as irrelevant if he was a volunteer at the church or a paid employee at the time the abuse was committed. Sebastian County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Shue explained that Thompson met the requirement of statute since he was in a "position of trust."

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Sebastian County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Shue says Isaiah Thompson was in a "position of trust" when he engaged in sexual conduct with a minor.

According to the Thompson's November 2020 affidavit, a member of the Christ for the World reported to the Fort Smith Police Department one of the workers at the church was engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct with a minor.

The department interviewed the worker, and found no evidence of sexual misconduct. But during the interview, the worker revealed they were a victim of sexual abuse from one of the volunteers at the church. The victim named Thompson as the abuser.  

The abuse started when the church worker was 7 years old, and Thompson was 17 years old, according to the affidavit. The abuse continued until 2018. The church worker reported the abuse on Jan. 30, 2020. Thompson was arrested on Nov. 10, 2020. According to the prosecutor's office, Thompson wasn't able to pay the bond that was set.

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In Thompson's case, the child’s parents testified in the trial that they relied on Jackson to provide childcare for them while they worked because they thought they could trust him. Burnett says it makes it difficult for children to report abuse when it is a family member and that can start a cycle of abuse.  

“When a child is young and they don't get the services, they need to heal from that, then it could be a cyclical thing where it continues on generational abuse happens. And so, it's about breaking that cycle,” Burnett said.   

Zena Featherston Marshall, executive director of communication and community partnerships, said that faculty in the Fort Smith Public Schools are mandated reporters. According to ar.mandatedreporter.org, a mandated reporter is someone required by law to report child abuse or suspicion of child abuse.  

Elsa Jasso, forensic services supervisor for Hamilton House, in an email wrote that abuse on children can lead to nightmares, personality changes, self-isolation and wetting the bed.