In 1992, Donna Franks began her career in law enforcement at Okolona, then to Monroe County Sheriff’s department and during that five years was assigned to the North Mississippi Narcotics Unit.
“During my stint there I met Dr. Tom Billups, who talked to me about coming to Lee County. He was going to talk with Sheriff Johnson about me, and I was told to come here, put in an application and that I’d have to go before a hiring board,” Franks said. “Sheriff Johnson was good enough to see some potential in me. At that point, I had been working with child abuse for 12 years. He gave me a job and the rest is history.”
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson took office in 2004, and shortly after that hired Franks because child abuse had not been given the attention it should have.
“When I was an investigator (1989-2001) I worked some in that area (child abuse). I would see, especially dealing with females, the attacker was mainly male, someone in authority, someone who was dominant over them,” Johnson said. “They were traumatized already because of that. I’d bring them in and I was male, an authoritative figure so it seemed to take quite a bit of time to build up trust.
“That was understandable so my thought process was — find a female who could break that barrier.”
So Franks became the first investigator hired for the sole purpose of dealing with child abuse cases.
Also the Child Abuse Task Force was assembled. It was made up of people from the Lee County Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney’s Office, Tupelo Police Department, Department of Human Services and Family Medical Clinic and others who would handle abuse cases from start to finish.
“Donna was also able to build a great relationship with the federal people because a lot of your state crimes, carry federal time as well, so she had to build that relationship, which wasn’t there before she took office,” Johnson said.
Franks would work with Child Protective Services and set up an interview with the Child Advocacy Center. If the child (victim) disclosed sexual abuse, then the investigation would begin.
“If it’s really bad, and it’s a little child — we’re going to arrest immediately,” Franks said. “I think our conviction rate here is pretty much 99.9% on these type cases.”
People might think if someone is accused of abuse, he or she should be arrested immediately, but abuse is complicated. The sheriff’s department works about 100 abuse cases a year.
“One thing that’s important, that you really have to watch is when a case is reported — you can’t just jump to a conclusion. You have to check if this family is going through a divorce? Is this a defiant child who continues to be in trouble and are they mad at their parent?,” Johnson said. “Because once you put this mark or label on someone ... that’s a serious, serious offense. You have to take in consideration the person, who is being charged as well.”
Child abuse or child maltreatment can be physical, sexual, and/or psychological maltreatment or neglect of a child or children, especially by a parent or a caregiver.
“I remember this one where the child was 11 and his step daddy raped him repeatedly,” Franks said. The boy was at trial later, confused by some of the courtroom lingo and scared. “I won’t ever forget, the little boy was sitting by me. He looked up at me, with tears streaming down and said ‘Miss Donna, you’re not going to let him hurt me anymore. Those kind of things melt your heart,” Franks said, her voice breaking. “That child would be 27 now. This job has been what I’ve always wanted to do, make a difference ... with children, and I feel like I have.”
Cases can be even worse. Sometimes the victim dies. William Matthew Wilson has been in prison since 2007 charged with the capital murder of 2-year-old Malorie Conlee. He also has a charge of felony child abuse, for which he was given 20 years.
“We had this six-month-old little girl, who was severely traumatized, tortured, burned and ended up dying. This was a case Donna worked. He (Wilson) was the live-in boyfriend. That child (Conlee) had no family, whatsoever. So she (Donna) took it upon herself, came to me and said, ‘we need to do something for this child,’” Johnson said. “So we went to the funeral home, the dress was donated. I preached the funeral. Over 200 people attended this child’s funeral. The funeral was paid for by the general public. We now have a Malorie Conlee fund, that helps with abused children, those who don’t have anyone to take care of them. “So that’s still giving today. We have a memorial tree planted here, in remembrance of Malorie, so we’ll never forget the victims.”
“I’m not going home because I don’t care — I care too much,” Donna said, wiping at tears. “I’ve responded to over 600 people, congratulating me (on her retirement). Some were people from cases I worked when they were children (victims). They were telling me what a difference I’d made in their lives.”
Franks also worked spousal and elder abuse cases, and was in charge of keeping up with sex offenders. When she started in 2004, Lee County had 54 sex offenders. Today, the county has 220.
Franks will keep busy in retirement keeping grandbabies, going to the beach, going to see Noah’s Ark, doing some painting but will come back to the Lee County Sheriff’s Department to eat with “the girls.”
“These girls are like my sisters. We’ve been together for 16 years,” Franks said and smiled.
The LCSD is located at 510 Commerce St, in Tupelo and can be reached at (662) 841-9040.