Abigail Layton ’98 Joins College Democrats for Discussion on Issues Facing Families and Children
By Kate Delaney, Staff Writer
On Wednesday evening, Abigail Layton ’98, Director of the Family Division in the Delaware Department of Justice, spoke at the Gettysburg College Democrats’ weekly meeting.
In her own time at Gettysburg, Layton originally wanted to be a doctor, and planned for her life to take a much different direction. She decided when she first started at Gettysburg to just sign up for everything, and, by her senior year, she was President of the Student Senate, leader of the Women’s Center, and even President of the Panhellenic Council for a time. She majored in philosophy, and decided to go to law school after realizing that medicine was not what she truly wanted to pursue.
However, at law school, she also felt a bit lost. She didn’t like the Socratic set-up, and couldn’t find her groove, but felt like it was what she had to do. She graduated from Villanova Law School, and moved to Boston to be a lawyer. But again, she felt that was not the right fit, and after two years decided to move back to Delaware, where she grew up. She went to another law firm, but hated the concept of generating “billable hours” and the work, so instead went to the Delaware Attorney General office and immediately knew that she had found her place.
She loved affecting people’s lives on a daily basis and trying cases. She gradually advanced in the office. She tried gun cases and saw how terrible the backgrounds were for so many of the people she was trying. That’s when she began to ask herself—how are these people ever going to have a chance with such a rough background?
She took a break when she had her children, and came back to a law firm doing defense work, but it didn’t feel right. She called the Attorney General’s office and asked for the job back. They told her yes, but she needed to work in the sex crimes division.
At the time, she was shocked. She had been raised in a very Catholic, reserved family, and spent her first interviews embarrassed at the things she was asking. But she said in the end this was the best job she ever had. She would listen to little kids talking about being abused by family members, and it felt good to fight for them. She was able to let them tell their stories. But this position also took a significant emotional toll. Hearing these stories was heartbreaking every time, so she took another job—working for the Child Predator Task Force for the State of Delaware.
She worked under the late Beau Biden, son of Former Vice President Joe Biden, and was part of an undercover team of state police, paralegals, and other local officials along with federal forces such as Homeland Security officers. The first day, she walked into the lab they had set up, and was immediately told she would have to look at the images on the computers they had seized from suspected child predators. The images were absolutely disturbing, and the first few times, she threw up every single day. Eventually, it became a little easier, and she did not have to listen to the heartbreaking stories she listened to in the Attorney General’s office. She felt that she could stop those who were hurting children, and that made a huge difference.
She was later asked to come back to the Department of Justice and to look at human trafficking cases. At the time, Layton had no idea that human trafficking was an issue in the United States. But through this position, she saw just how many kids have been exploited and trafficked. She worked to help write legislation on human trafficking in Delaware, which transformed the old statutes they had in place. Once people were able to recognize human trafficking, they became passionate about fighting it. Eventually, she moved to the Medicaid fraud unit before getting the opportunity to be director of the Family Division in the Delaware Department of Justice, the position she holds today.
At this point, she opened it up for question from the audience, and was asked about Roy Moore, the Alabama senator who was accused of molesting young girls, and what to do to combat the ideology behind such actions. She pointed out that now, with all the people coming forward with their sexual abuse stories, people are starting to tell stories they have been too scared to tell for a long time. She asked everyone to imagine the power authority figures have over the children they prey on; twenty years ago, no one spoke about these issues openly because they were too scared to discuss it. One girl that Layton met on her job was abused by her stepfather while her mother was in jail. The only way she knew that this behavior was wrong was because Layton’s team did a presentation on it in her school, and she told her teacher that she thought her stepfather was mistreating her. Now, she said, society must make it more socially acceptable for stories like these to come forward.
Layton was also questioned on the Dark Web and how to protect children from the dangers of human trafficking on the internet. Layton noted that a few years ago, drugs and guns were the biggest thing to sell on the Dark Web, but since then there has been a major crackdown on these items, making it much harder for people to acquire them. However, humans remain an easy commodity. Layton recommends keeping technology in an open space, never going to the Dark Web or a site called backpage, and always remember that trafficking is exploitation. People end up being trafficked mainly due to vulnerability and a feeling of something missing in their lives.
Layton also talked about a specific victory she was proud of, describing one particular case where a young boy with disabilities was being abused. When her team interviewed the boy, he was unable to really communicate whether he had been abused or not. From the computer they seized at the home, they could easily find proof that he had been abused. They then found a much better home for the boy, and he was adopted.
In response to the multitude of sexual harassment stories that have come out in recent months, Layton was asked if she thought this was a turning point. She said that she hoped so, but she does think there will be some backlash because some people are telling everything that ever happened to them. However, so many people are just too scared to share their stories, and she hopes that now people will be more comfortable coming forward.
Another student asked what the biggest fault in the system that prosecutes these cases is. She said that once a person tells their story, a story that is very hard to tell, every step of the system is about discrediting this story. Every time a person tells their story, someone else tells them why it is not true. When a father is taken out of a home for abusing his child, and the family loses a breadwinner, often children are convinced to recant their stories so their family does not suffer. She was questioned on how to respond to accusations that try to discredit stories of sexual abuse, and she pointed out that there are always liars, but often that is not the case is sexual assault cases. The hardest part about these cases is that there is often no evidence, so it comes down to credibility. But generally, if someone comes forward, they are telling the truth, she said. She believes that if people understood just how much courage it takes to come forward, they would be less inclined to seek to discredit these stories.