Bellar Case Raises Questions About Possible ‘Systematic Failure’

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — It took a long, angry post on Facebook to trigger a full investigation into allegations of sexual abuse within an Athens-area family.

A screen shot of a photo of herself that Serah Bellar, who was missing for a year, posted on a Facebook page.
A photo of herself that Serah Bellar, who was missing for a year, posted on a Facebook page. [Facebook]
The post, made last month by a girl who had been hiding from her family for a year, accomplished what three previous reports made through official channels had not.

The Athens County prosecutor says there was a “systematic failure” in how the reports that children in the Bellar family were being sexually abused were handled.

If there was a breakdown in the system, the question is where and how did it happen?

The indictments last week of four members of the Bellar family and the charges brought against a sheriff’s deputy accused of obstructing justice may help answer that question as the cases move forward.

More than four years before Serah Bellar made her Facebook post, authorities were alerted to possible sexual abuse in the Bellar home.

In February 2017, according to the indictments against the parents, Robert and Deborah Bellar, Athens County Children Services received a report that included text messages that appear to be between one of the Bellar daughters and the mother of a grandchild who lives with the family.

The texts described a pattern of sexual activity among the Bellar children. One of the texts says, “I wouldn’t think twice i will tell them everything that goes on here … there is so much shit to be told.”

The Bellars have 18 biological children. They attended Dove Outreach Church in Waverly, which is run by Robert’s brother James. The church preaches that siblings are meant to procreate with one another after the apocalypse to repopulate the earth, according to the indictments.

Two of the Bellar’s sons were also indicted last week. Josiah, 24, is accused of raping two of his sisters. Jonathan, 26, is charged with gross sexual imposition involving one of those sisters.

Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said the February 2017 report to Children Services did not result in a formal investigation by the sheriff’s office, which would be the normal procedure in cases where child sexual abuse is suspected. Blackburn said it appears the case was closed by Children Services.

A year later, Serah Bellar, then 15, ran away from home. On May 7, 2018, an Ohio state trooper found her riding a bicycle down U.S. 50 in the dark.

She was carrying a backpack with some clothes and toiletries. She said she was on her way to Georgia.

Serah told the trooper she was running away because she was afraid of one of her brothers, who was in prison. She said he had physically and sexually abused her years ago. She said she had cut her thighs in the past to help cope with the trauma.

Deborah Bellar
Deborah Bellar arraigned in court on May 19, 2021. [Athens Co. Prosecutors Office]
Serah was turned over to her mother, who had driven to the scene. According to the trooper’s report, Deborah said she had no knowledge of the abuse her daughter was alleging. She said if she did she would have reported it to the proper authorities and thought Serah was “just being a typical young girl.”

The indictments against Deborah and her husband accuse them of covering up a history of alleged sexual abuse within their family.

The trooper wrote that he forwarded his report to Athens County Children Services for review.

Children Services’ role is to investigate allegations of child abuse. In cases of suspected sexual abuse, it works with a task force that includes representatives from several agencies, including the sheriff’s office and the prosecutor’s office.

Robin Webb, a spokesperson for Children Services, said because of confidentiality rules, she could not confirm her agency received or investigated any reports of sexual abuse regarding the Bellar family.

She did say that “when our staff suspect or uncover criminal activity throughout the course of their investigation, it is referred to the sheriff’s office.”

Blackburn said the sheriff’s office did start an investigation following the trooper’s May 2018 report to Children Services.

Serah was interviewed and said two of her brothers had had sexual contact with her. The case was closed without either brother being interviewed, Blackburn said. It was reopened a few months later and one brother was interviewed, but then it was closed again.

A caseworker with Children Services reached out to Serah’s parents in separate phone calls as part of the investigation, according to the indictments filed last week. They said their daughter was lying.

Sheriff Rodney Smith said the deputy who investigated the case consulted with the prosecutor’s office and a decision was made that there was not enough evidence to press charges.

Blackburn said no one in his office recalls having this conversation but acknowledged it could have happened. He said no one from his office was involved in investigating any of the three reports made to Children Services.

The third report came in April 2020. Blackburn said this did not result in a formal investigation by the sheriff’s office and that his investigators are still trying to piece together exactly what happened in this case.

April 2020 is also when Serah disappeared. She resurfaced four weeks ago with her Facebook post on April 26, the day she turned 18. She said she wanted to wait until she was legally an adult before resurfacing and going public with her story.

Blackburn said in a news release last week announcing the indictments against the four Bellar family members that “Serah was turned away by authorities every time she tried to report this abuse.”

Children Services has bristled at the implication that it somehow dropped the ball.

“It is unfortunate that our agency remains ethically bound to confidentiality, and is not able to more specifically defend the allegations made regarding this case,” Webb wrote in an email. “Our investigative staff do their jobs thoroughly, with skill and compassion for alleged victims, and do not deserve to have their work impugned publicly.”

Webb noted that her agency lacks the authority to bring charges against alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse. That’s up to law enforcement.

It appears that for whatever reason two of the three reports of sexual abuse were never formally investigated by law enforcement. And even the May 2018 report did not trigger an investigation by the full task force because, according to Blackburn, his office was not involved.

The accusations against the Bellars still must be proven in court. But what does seem clear now is had it not been for the Facebook post, the allegations of sexual abuse might never have received a second look.