Champion for Children
Long-time child-abuse prosecutor believes in kids

By Myrna DeVries Anderson '00

Sheryl EssenburgIn her long career of prosecuting child abuse cases, Sheryl Essenburg ’75 has accumulated a lot of praise from her peers in the field.

Then there was the accolade she received while sitting in the courtroom—the day after she made a televised appearance as an expert on child abuse—from an inmate at the Big Muddy River Correctional Facility in Ina, Ill. [ You can order a copy of Sheryl's CNN interview. ]

“This guy comes out of the holding cell, walks up to me and says, ‘I saw you on CNN last night. Thought you did a real good job,’” Essenburg recalled. The man was in court to make a plea to be released. He was in Big Muddy because Essenburg had put him there; she was in court to make sure he stayed put.

Essenburg, the director of the domestic and child violence division of the Sangamon County (Illinois) state’s attorney’s office, has sent a lot of sex offenders to Big Muddy, so many that her colleagues have joked that they should name a wing of the prison after her. Essenburg does not, however, envisage herself as a crusading prosecutor: “I see my job as, first and foremost, protecting the community,” she said.

“Sheryl’s focus is on the children,” said John Kaylor, a special agent with the Illinois State Police, who works closely with Essenburg, “and that’s what it should be.”

Sheryl EssenburgEssenburg has slowly refined that focus over a long period of education and training. A native of Cutlerville, Mich., she was an avid debater on the South Christian High School team: “Persuading people, arguing, was very appealing to me,” she said.

Even back then, she was pondering a legal career, though one of Essenburg’s teachers cautioned her against attending law school. “Now, mind you, I was co-valedictorian,” she said, “and there were guys pulling B’s: Those he encouraged to go to law school. Back then, it wasn’t something girls did. Girls were teachers, nurses or social workers, not lawyers.”

Essenburg majored in political science at Calvin and found ways, as an off-campus student, to involve herself in the on-campus community. She wrote for Chimes, and, in her junior year, ran for student body president against a slate of male candidates. One of her rivals, current vice president of administration, finance and information services Henry DeVries, recalled: “She won, and I spent another year as the student senate treasurer. My one reminiscence of Sheryl is that she always had a very strong sense of justice and held strong convictions about doing what was right. ”

In her junior year, 1974, when Watergate was just getting under way, Essenburg spent the January interim in Washington, D.C., touring sites like the Smithsonian, Arlington National Cemetery and Mt. Vernon and working on a Senate subcommittee on refugees and escapees. “A look into the legislative process and getting a look at some people you only saw in the newspaper or on TV,” she remembered the working end of the interim. “In retrospect, it was a very significant 30 days.”

After Calvin, Essenburg went on to the University of Illinois College of Law in Champaign, where she met Dave Ross, whom she married in 1978. “We talked about hyphenating,” she said of keeping her maiden name, “but it would have sounded like a Jewish holiday.”

Essenburg’s first post-law-school job was as a research assistant with the National Juvenile Law Center in St. Louis, Mo. “I liked that … but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. What Essenburg did want to do was shaped a little by the civil rights movement, she said, and a little by feminism: “I saw children’s issues as an area to be tackled.”

She moved on to a job as assistant attorney general in the Illinois attorney general’s office in Springfield, Ill., and in 1981 she heard that the local Sangamon County state’s attorney’s office was looking for someone to work in the juvenile division. “I was intrigued,” Essenburg said. “Juvenile court dealt with abuse, neglect, basically all the areas where the government has to step in with the parent-child relationship.”

Back when she joined the juvenile division, said Essenburg, people were largely unaware of how widespread the problem of child abuse was. She tried her first criminal child molestation case in 1982. “The jury came back with a guilty verdict,” she said, “and I think they thought, ‘We’ve caught Sangamon County’s child molester!’”

Essenburg stayed at the juvenile division for eight years (the previous longest stay in that job was nine months), during which time she noticed a disturbing trend: “What was happening was, if there was abuse, the child was removed from the family, but there were no consequences for the offender. I think prosecutors, by and large, were uncomfortable with the issue. It was treated as a family matter. So many of these kids would go back into the family where they were abused, and the perpetrator would pick up where they left off.” She also realized that many child molesters victimized multiple generations of family members.

In 1989, when she moved to the felony division of the Sangamon County state’s attorney’s office, Essenburg was looking for a way to bring the law to bear on these issues. She discovered the Sexually Dangerous Persons Act, a law that allows prosecutors to civilly, rather than criminally, commit a sex molester. “So, I used it in a case, and the guy went away,” she said. “He was a pretty hardcore pedophile.”

Essenburg has successfully used the act—which allows a prosecutor to use both expert psychological testimony and an offender’s history as evidence—many times since. “The way it works is, when person is deemed a sexually dangerous person, they go down to the department of corrections,” said Essenburg, “and they stay in the department of corrections until they’re no longer a sexually dangerous person.” Essenburg figures that of the 145 sexually dangerous persons currently incarcerated at Big Muddy, approximately 40 are there because she prosecuted them.

“I don’t know how many times we have sat there with our mouths hanging open, thinking, ‘How did she craft that amazing closing statement that refutes everything the defense attorney just said?’” said Betsy Goulet, a child advocacy training consultant, of Essenburg’s courtroom dexterity. “I would not want to be on a project that doesn’t include her. Her knowledge in child abuse is legendary, and her prosecutorial skills are not to be found anywhere.”

Goulet, a close friend, also partnered with Essenburg and a team of others in founding the Child Advocacy Center 1989. The center, which brings all of the players in child abuse prevention—law enforcement, child protective services, the prosecutor—to the same table to investigate and resolve cases of child abuse and molestation, was one of the first of its kind in the nation when it opened. “The idea of ... law enforcement and child protection services working together was such a novel concept back then,” Essenburg said.

All of those major players were gathered, literally, at the same table at the center in late September to sort through the various cases they might investigate and prosecute in the upcoming weeks. The discussion ranged over suspicious bruises, handcuffs, genital warts and other topics of the field. After hearing one inconclusive report on an offender, Essenburg, who ran the meeting, commented: “We can always tuck it away until someone does come forward. These things have a way of turning up again.”

The stories of abuse get pretty grim, she allowed: “If you didn’t believe in total depravity, get into this business, and you will.”

Yet despite the evidence she faces that child abuse is not going away, despite the details of that abuse she hears about on a weekly basis, Essenburg has not grown calloused or cynical about her job, said Polly Poskin, the executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “She’s cheerful. She’s positive. She’s upbeat,” Poskin said.

“She is the consummate professional,” said Sangamon County state’s attorney John Schmidt, Essenburg’s boss. “We deal with very difficult things. She does an excellent job of keeping a perspective.”

Having a “life outside” helps, said Essenburg, a life that includes daughters Sarah, a student at McCormick Theological Seminary, and Elizabeth, a Calvin senior studying international development, and her son, Craig, who attends the local Lutheran high school. Essenburg also earns a reprieve, confides Goulet, by indulging her passion for movies (even obscure movies) starring Tommy Lee Jones. “That’s something we do together,” Goulet said. “I don’t think she could analyze what she finds attractive about Tommy Lee Jones.”

One measure of Essenburg’s considerable success is her longevity in the field, say her colleagues. She has continued prosecuting sex offenders (and training other prosecutors), while her peers have moved on to other things: “Prosecutors don’t stay in this job,” said Goulet. “They run through child abuse cases as quickly as they can; they’re complicated, uncomfortable and you have to be willing to lose. She takes chances. She charges cases that others never would have charged because she believes in the children.”

Her success has earned her a number of honors: the 2002 Don Thorpe Memorial Advocate of the Year, a 2007 Children’s Advocacy Centers of Illinois “Champion for Children” honor and the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault “Moxie” Award. It isn’t the accolades, however, that keep her working at such a tough job: “One of the things they talk about at Calvin is calling,” Essenburg said. “I don’t think there’s anything I could do in the law that could give me as much satisfaction.”

Myrna Anderson is Calvin’s senior writer.