Alizadeh called her counterparts in St. Clair and Madison counties for advice.
“I called to ask, ‘How do you guys get these records?’ They said, ‘Well, we don’t,’” she explained. “When the statute says it’s unavailable, period, there’s not much I can do about it.”
Even if there is a positive STD test from someone with access to the victim, Alizadeh said, the case needs corroboration from a victim or witness. Otherwise: “I can’t prove they got it from that person.”
Most STDs do not have characteristics that can specifically link the infection of one person to another. So even though a suspect and child may have the same disease, doctors cannot swear to a connection.
But doctors often can determine that a disease came from sexual abuse, explained Dr. Ann DiMaio, a member of the Child Protection Team at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.
“Especially when it comes to chlamydia and gonorrhea, that’s a slam-dunk for us,” she said. “A young child is not going to get them from sharing a washcloth or during diaper changes.”
Looking For Symptoms
In 2009, 18 children younger than 10 tested positive for chlamydia and four for gonorrhea, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. In Illinois, 47 children younger than 10 tested positive for chlamydia, and 19 for gonorrhea, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Prepubescent girls are biologically less prone to STDs than adult women because their cervical cells aren’t as mature. So, the presence of an STD in a girl probably means she was repeatedly exposed to the disease through sexual contact that damaged her internal tissues, making them more susceptible to infection, DeMaio said.
In boys, symptoms of STDs — such as lesions, burning during urination or a discharge — may be more obvious. But, overall, there are fewer reports of sexual abuse involving boys and it may not occur to a parent that such symptoms could be from a sex-related disease, DiMaio said.
HIV can be transmitted through a variety of ways beyond sexual contact, making its origin perhaps the most complicated to prove.
HIV and some STDs, such as herpes, have lifelong consequences. Gonorrhea and chlamydia are infections that can be treated with one-time doses of medication and can go away on their own — although they may cause fertility problems later, especially if left untreated.
Officials said infected children could be at risk of medical neglect from parents afraid to invite the interest of the law or who might just not consider the possibility of abuse. “Sometimes people don’t test for STDs and it gets misdiagnosed as a yeast infection or hygiene issues because no one’s considered an STD,” DiMaio suggested.
At the same time, doctors do not recommend STD tests unless there is suspected abuse, because it involves an invasive procedure, said Dr. Donna Eckardt, medical director for pediatric emergencies at St. John’s Mercy Children’s Hospital.
A Last Resort
Despite the difficulties that police, prosecutors and medical professionals face when a child tests positive for an STD, all of them point to the family court system as a last resort to remove the child from danger.
“We’re not going to be able to protect the child from it happening again because we likely won’t be able to prosecute, but we can present the facts to the family court and hope they intervene,” Guinn explained. “Their burden of proof is much lower than ours.”
A medical professional in Missouri or Illinois who discovers that a minor has an STD believed to be the result of sexual abuse is required to notify state officials.
The Missouri Department of Social Services said it investigated 14 such incidents in 2007-09, involving people younger than 18, in St. Louis and St. Louis, St. Charles, Jefferson, Franklin and Lincoln counties.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services said it investigated 27 cases in children younger than 17 from July 2007 through June 2010 in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties.
Either of those state agencies can petition a family court to have the child placed in protective custody if there appears to be risk of further abuse.
“Even if we can’t prove who the perpetrator is, from a child welfare perspective, if the caretaker allowed someone to abuse the child, then that caregiver may be substantiated for neglect even if they did not commit the abusive act themselves,” said Kendall Marlowe, spokesman for the DCFS. “We can still take actions to protect a child, even if perpetrator is unknown.”
The 4-year-old girl is now in the custody of her grandmother.