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To stop sex abuse, trust your instincts

Though it cannot be proven that former Columbia County Sheriff's Office administrators knew beyond a shadow of a doubt John Hinkle's actions warranted termination of his employment, we can safely say he should have been removed from the presence of children in his work.

Our presumption is based not on the fact that he was convicted March 6 in Columbia County Circuit Court of multiple felony sex crimes for the sexual abuse of a family member. Instead, it is centered on how quickly the Sheriff's Office administration under Sheriff Jeff Dickerson, who started in that role in 2009, gauged Hinkle's lack of professionalism and truthfulness concerns in his work.

Dickerson launched an internal investigation into Hinkle based on his concerns, and Hinkle resigned prior to the investigation's conclusion.

But Oregon State Police investigators had already opened an investigation into allegations Hinkle had inappropriate relations with a student while he was assigned to work as the school resource officer at Rainier High School and later opened the investigation into Hinkle's crimes against a family member.

This is yet again another example, we believe, of how the former Sheriff's Office administration under Phillip Derby turned a blind eye to problems in the Sheriff's Office, allowing them to fester beyond repair. Another example is poor management of evidence, in one case contributing to the break-in of an evidence storage shed in which several items were stolen.

While it is not possible to say the Derby administration knew without doubt Hinkle posed a risk to students, reporting in The Spotlight has shown that parents had raised concerns about Hinkle to Derby-era Sheriff's Office administrators and that those concerns, more or less, seemed to be brushed aside.

In one case, a father presented to The Spotlight a 2007 complaint he says he made to the Sheriff's Office that alleged Hinkle had taken photos of his step-daughter that, for him, raised red flags. The same father also says he complained to the Sheriff's Office that Hinkle made an inappropriate appearance at his daughter's track meet.

Former Undersheriff Gerry Simmons said he had no recollection of the complaint.

The problem we're presented with is the fact that Derby administration kept poor records of its investigations, said Dickerson, who discovered the poor recordkeeping after he took office. At this point, it is the father's word versus the word of the former Sheriff's Office administrators. Frankly, we're inclined to believe the father.

Simmons did recall a complaint against Hinkle, however, in which it was alleged he inappropriately hugged a student. Simmons told The Spotlight he looked into the claim, despite the fact that there are no records to that effect. He also said he determined the interaction was appropriate, though he kept a closer eye on Hinkle after the fact.

If the interaction was appropriate, what is the purpose of keeping a closer eye on him? This tells us that Simmons was uncertain in his appraisal. Instead of trusting his instincts and taking formal action against Hinkle, such as giving Hinkle a written warning and letting him know any additional interactions with students of that nature could result in further discipline, including termination, he instead did nothing.

When Dickerson took over, there was no paper trail indicating complaints of this nature had been made against Hinkle.

If there is one lesson concerning Hinkle we can all learn from, it is this: Trust your instincts. Especially when it applies to adult interactions with children. If you observe an action between an adult and a child, especially an adult in a position of influence with the child - school resource officer, coach, teacher, uncle, aunt, etc. - that makes you uncomfortable, that observation needs to be addressed, preferably with a supervisor.

If the situation, such as with a relative, does not afford the opportunity to discuss your observation with a supervisor, or the supervisor or authority figure doesn't listen, under no circumstances leave your child unattended with a person who has drawn your suspicion.

It takes constant vigilance, and trust in instincts, to keep children safe from the growing population of sexual predators, which unfortunately includes those who would be least suspected due to their employment in positions of authority and influence.