She had told the judge of the shame she felt.

Crying, she had apologized to her family and her former employer, Child Saving Institute, for defaming its name. She had pleaded guilty to a reduced charge. She had hoped for, if not expected, a probation term.

So when a judge announced that he thought probation was inappropriate for the 23-year-old woman who had sex with a 17-year-old ward of the state, Hanna Dickerson didn’t immediately grasp the gravity.

It wasn’t until Douglas County District Judge Greg Schatz announced the sentence — two years in prison, which translates to one year in actual time behind bars — that reality set in.

Shocked, Dickerson, now 24, looked in horror at her mother, who was sitting in the middle of the courtroom, quietly weeping. Sheriff’s deputies ordered her to stand up and put her hands behind her back. Batting back tears, she shot another panicked look in her mother’s direction. “Mom,” she mouthed.

She was then led away to prison.

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The former worker at the Child Saving Institute’s emergency shelter had sex with a boy who was a ward of the state, right around his 17th birthday.

Confronted by his parents after seeing texts from Dickerson, the boy eventually told investigators that Dickerson had paid extra attention to him at Child Saving Institute, an agency that specializes in adoptions, emergency foster care and family therapy. She befriended him, then eventually bought him a phone so they could communicate.

Within a few weeks of the boy’s stay, they were in the basement of the facility near 46th and Dodge Streets. The boy told investigators they began to kiss. Dickerson told him, “I want you.”

They then had sex.

In time, Dickerson posted an online application for a job on behalf of the boy — which was against rules. Child Saving Institute officials confronted her about that on July 31, 2017. She was fired Aug. 1, according to court accounts.

In August, the two then had sex at least two more times at Hummel Park while the boy was on day passes.

Dickerson’s attorney, Jon Natvig, had argued for leniency. The middle daughter of seven children, Dickerson grew up in a traditional Christian household in Neola, Iowa, Natvig said.

He said Dickerson had gotten out of an abusive relationship in which her boyfriend had pushed her down a set of stairs while she was pregnant, causing her to miscarry. She loved serving people in need — and had hoped to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a nurse, Natvig said.

In April 2017, she got a job at Child Saving Institute supervising wards of the state, sometimes overnight.

“It was a stupid act,” Natvig said. “Ms. Dickerson should have known better than to get close to the (juvenile). She believes that, at the time, she was somewhat vulnerable. She found somebody she could talk to and he could talk to. And the two of them clicked.

“Unfortunately, she stepped over the line.”

While the relationship was wrong, Natvig emphasized, she didn’t force the boy to have sex. And because of the boy’s age, the act didn’t constitute statutory rape — which involves anyone 15 or under. Instead, Dickerson pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of attempted sexual assault of a dependent.

“I just want to say I’m sorry to everyone involved, especially (the boy) and to CSI for defaming their name,” Dickerson told the judge. “I wasn’t raised that way. I should have taken care of my health before I took this job. Words can’t describe how remorseful and shameful I feel.”

Natvig told the judge that the boy doesn’t seem to have lasting scars. It wasn’t his first sexual experience, Natvig said. And the boy seemed to brush it off during a deposition in the case, Natvig said.

“Hopefully, he’s enjoying the love and companionship of his family,” the attorney said. “He seems like he’s doing well and anxious to get on with his life. I believe her actions will soon be forgotten.”

It’s not that easy, according to prosecutor Molly Keane. Keane noted that Dickerson — no different from a male predator — groomed a vulnerable teen by giving him a phone and extra attention, even snacks.

The woman who later adopted the 17-year-old told the judge that Dickerson had encouraged him not to wear protection during sex. Then, after news of Dickerson’s arrest surfaced, someone created a spoof of an online baby registry for Dickerson.

That caused anxiety, sleepless nights and panic for the boy, who feared that Dickerson was having his child.

“He was waking up in cold sweats,” said the boy’s adoptive mother.

The woman noted that the boy spent most of his childhood, through no fault of his own, in foster care or emergency shelters. Along came Dickerson.

“She worked her way up to gaining my son’s trust to fill her own needs,” the mother said. “My son is no longer trusting of any female teachers or authority figures. Hanna has damaged an already fractured soul.”

While Dickerson had no record other than a shoplifting charge, Schatz said the crime demanded prison time.

“This was a violation of a public trust,” the judge said. “She knew well the nature of that public trust and violated it anyway.”

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Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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