Commissioners favorable to D.A.’s plea to bolster overburdened child-abuse unit
By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times
Widespread publicity about serial child molestation – both suspected and successfully prosecuted – prompted an unusual presentation to media outlets Wednesday by the Chester County Commissioners.
Joined by District Attorney Tom Hogan. Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth B. Pitts, who heads the county’s Child Abuse Unit, and Tredyffrin Police Superintendent Anthony Giaimo, the commissioners detailed a two-fold goal: to let citizens know that it’s not their imagination that child-abuse prosecutions are skyrocketing and to reassure residents the county plans to do something about it.
In a period of austerity accompanied by a hiring freeze, the commissioners have individually voiced support for the 2014 addition of a county detective who will be assigned to the child-abuse unit, where investigations have nearly tripled in the past five years, said Hogan. He estimated that with a base salary of $78,000, the county’s cost would be about $100,000, including benefits.
The commissioners said they couldn’t discuss the position collectively until the budget process begins. Stressing that no final decision has been made, all three commissioners said the dramatic numbers appear to justify the expense. “If we’re not spending money here, I don’t know what it is we would or should be spending on,” said Commissioners’ Chairman Ryan Costello.
Costello said the commissioners appreciated the fact that Hogan approached the board members early, describing the need and providing statistics to validate it. Costello said he was “favorably predisposed” to include the position in the budget, which is not due until the end of the year.
Commissioners Terence Farrell and Kathi Cozzone agreed. Mindful of his 9-year-old granddaughter, Farrell said he was motivated “to get these creeps off the streets.” Cozzone said the one positive that may have come from the case of Jerry Sandusky, a longtime child molester and former Penn State assistant football coach, is that people seemed to have learned the importance of “if you see something, say something.”
Hogan said the Sandusky case generated attention to the problem that led to a spike in reporting. Pitts added that experts don’t believe more abuse is occurring, but more is being reported. The increase is believed to be a result of stricter reporting requirements as well as raised public awareness.
Regardless of the reason for the higher numbers, all of the reports have to be investigated fully – whether they lead to prosecution or not, Pitts said. The increased caseload has strained resources, she said. Hogan said the numbers have been so high that he temporarily reassigned a detective from major crimes to the child-abuse unit, resulting in two full-time investigators.
“It became clear that we needed another detective to keep up with these cases and to protect the children,” Hogan said, adding that substantial training is needed to handle child-abuse cases properly. “It’s not like interviewing an adult.”
For example, Hogan said, a 6-year-old who learns about inappropriate touching in school may be prompted to disclose abuse that occurred two years earlier. “The interview is going to be our evidence,” Hogan said. “There’s no DNA … no fingerprints.”
Pitts said having specially trained county detectives is a critical component of the process, and she said those detectives often assist local departments. Giaimo concurred, commenting that many of the upper-class defendants “have high levels of deception” that require “a high level of expertise” from investigators.
Hogan said the number of child-abuse cases reported in 2006 was 121; by 2012, 331 required investigation. So far, this year is on track to continue that upward trend. “We are going to see more reports,” he said.
Costello said that trend necessitated Wednesday’s presentation. He said as county residents read about the county’s child-abuse cases, they are going to wonder: “What are you doing about it?”