WEST CHESTER — Because the number of child sexual abuse cases has risen dramatically over the past half-decade, Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan wants his office’s investigative staff beefed up to handle such crimes.
And Hogan’s attempt to convince county commissioners of the wisdom of adding a new specialized investigator with the Chester County Detectives to the county’s budget has apparently found a receptive audience.
In an unusual briefing with local news outlets last week, all three commissioners expressed support for Hogan’s proposal for hiring a new detective trained specifically to work with child sex abuse investigations. Although each commissioner was quick to note that no final decision could be made until the 2014 budget is discussed and voted on, it seems likely from their comments that the district attorney’s wish would be granted.
“I think it is important for our residents to know that we might be spending a little bit more money, but that I think it is justified,” commissioners’ Chairman Ryan Costello said at the briefing. Wednesday. With him were his two colleagues, Hogan, Tredyffrin Police Superintendent Anthony Giaimo and Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth Pitts, who leads the county’s child sex abuse investigative unit.
“If we are not going to spend money on this, I don’t know what we are going to spend money on,” Costello said.
Commissioners’ Vice Chairwoman Kathi Cozzone, a member of the county’s child advocacy center, which brings together various disciplines to oversee the child abuse case load, echoed Costello. “As a mother, I know there is nothing more sad than a child that has been abused.” Bringing an additional trained police investigator into the mix, Cozzone said, would help resolve open cases more quickly.
“The sooner an investigation can be completed, the better the child will be,” Cozzone said.
And Commissioner Terrence Farrell, himself a grandfather, put it succinctly that such a hire would show that the county “is doing everything we can do as commissioners to get the creeps off the street.”
Hogan, who is nearing the half-way mark of his term as district attorney, admitted that there “is never a good time to talk about child abuse,” in opening up the topic at the briefing, held in the commissioners’ office in West Chester. But the notion that the commissioner might support is proposal for a new investigator amounted, he said, to “some good news.”
He said that it is not enough to hand out such cases to members of the major crimes unit in the detectives’ office. Such cases are different.
“This is like brain surgery,” Hogan explained. The investigations are “highly technical, very delicate,” and “unless they are done perfectly, they can be very traumatic for the children involved.”
Three detectives are currently assigned to child abuse investigations: a supervisor who is split between those cases and other topics; a full-time investigator; and a detective who, although trained in such cases, was switched from the major crimes unit to fill in.
If allowed to hire another detective — at a cost of about $100,000 for salary and benefits — Hogan said he could devote two full-time investigators to the cases and transfer the other detective back to the major crimes unit, which is “stretched thin” as it is, he said.
Statistics of reports of child sexual abuse cases in the county provided by Hogan showed that the number had risen from 121 in 2006 to 331 in 2012, almost a three-fold increase.
Hogan stressed that the number of child abuses cases actually occurring has likely not increased but that public recognition of the problem — through high-profile cases such as the one involving former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky — has led to more reports.
And thus, he said, there is a need for more investigations.
Pitts said all calls that come through the child abuse hotline or that are reported to police by teachers and other professionals must be checked by state, municipal or county investigators. And those interviews with possible victims must be handled properly, she said.
“If I can get an investigation done quickly, then the decision on whether to prosecute can be done more quickly,” Pitts said. “What supports the child in these cases is whatever evidence we can gather.”
Giaimo, a police veteran of 24 years, acknowledged that not only had municipal departments like his seen an increase in reports of child sexual abuse, but that the need for sophisticated investigative techniques were essential because of the nature of the crimes and those who commit them.
“These crimes are the most heinous we see ... and are very, very difficult to work,” Giaimo told reporters at the briefing.
The support given by county investigators has helped his detectives in numerous situations, Giaimo said, especially in instances when they go beyond one jurisdiction.
The commissioners collectively left little doubt that they would likely accede to Hogan’s request for a new detective, and they predicted that the county taxpayers would be supportive as well.
“The district attorney has made a compelling case,” said Cozzone. “We are looking at this and taking it very seriously.”