DA expands Child Abuse Unit as reports spike

From left, Megan King, Emily Provencher, Christine Bleiler, and Oscar Rosado are part of a growing team to deal with a spike in child abuse complaints in the Chester County District Attorney’s Office.

WEST CHESTER — Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan announced Friday that child abuse reports are continuing to increase in volume in Chester County — in part because of new state reporting requirements — as his office is moving to add resources to handle the additional investigative load.

“With the change in Pennsylvania laws regarding mandatory reporting of child abuse after the Sandusky case, we expected to see an increase in child abuse reports,” Hogan said. “This spike mirrors increases across the Commonwealth. More cases are being reported and the District Attorney’s Child Abuse Unit has grown in size and sophistication in order to address the new case load.”

The District Attorney’s Child Abuse Unit receives child abuse reports from multiple agencies, including the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare and the Chester County Department of Children, Youth and Families.

According to figures from the DA’s office, complaints have grown from 291 in 2013 to 1,681 in 2016. Just in one year — from 2015 to 2016 — the county saw a rise in complaints from 1,306 to 1,681.

The increase in reports has resulted  in  a corresponding  increased  workload for the Child Abuse Unit and the local  police departments.   When there is a report   of serious child abuse, the child victims usually are interviewed at the Children’s Advocacy Center in the District Attorney’s Office, a safe location specifically designed to be kid-friendly.  The  interviews  are  conducted  by  forensic interviewers, detectives  who are specially trained to deal with  children.

In order to address the additional work, the District Attorney’s Office has prioritized child abuse resources. In 2013, these were two prosecutors and two detectives (one investigator and one supervisor) assigned to the DA’s Child Abuse Unit. As of 2017, the Child Abuse Unit has four prosecutors and four detectives  (three investigators and one supervisor) assigned, effectively doubling in size.

The Chester County Commissioners previously authorized hiring an extra detective specifically to address child abuse cases.

“As the District Attorney has noted, we expected to see an increase in reports of child abuse because of the change in state laws, but those expectations don’t make it any easier when we see the actual numbers,” Michele Kichline, Chair of the Chester County Commissioners, said. “One of the main priorities of the Board of Commissioners is public safety, especially the safety of our children. I thank the DA and his staff for prioritizing their resources and doing everything that they can to protect the children during the grueling and emotional – but necessary – process of investigation and prosecution.”

The rise in number of reports also has led to a rise in the number of child abuse cases being prosecuted. These cases are often complex, leading to an increased burden on prosecutors and the courts. The cases are always traumatic for the child victims, who are forced to re-live their abuse in court.

“In Chester County, we are fortunate to have the resources to deal with the complex issue of child abuse,” Hogan said. “In addition, we are surrounded by elected officials and civic leaders who understand the importance of protecting our children. However, talking to colleagues around Pennsylvania who already are overwhelmed by the heroin and opioid epidemic, it is clear that many rural counties and urban centers lack the resources to address the spike in child abuse cases. More resources need to be devoted to the investigation and prosecution of these cases. Even one child being hurt is one too many and no child predator should be allowed to roam the streets.”

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