WESTMINSTER — When police get a report that a child may have been raped or beaten,they can't investigate it like similar crimes involving adults.
"Child abuse is a different beast from other kinds of police work," said state police Sgt. Jeff Merson. "It can be really involved and require a lot of time to interview the child to find out what happened."
Because of the increasing number of cases in Carroll and the urging of Assistant State's Attorney Kathi Hill, state police in Westminster have created a new unit to concentrate exclusively on investigating the sexual and physical abuse of children.
Until April 1, all eight criminal investigators at the Westminster barracks took on childabuse cases. Under the new system, Merson, Tfc. Charlene Jenkins andTfc. Najeeb Shah will handle most of the abuse reports.
"This unit will try to take the pressure out of the pressure cooker, and let the other investigators concentrate on investigating the breaking and enterings, homicides and other county crimes," said Merson, supervisor of the new unit.
And while the new unit will allow the other investigators to concentrate on other types of crime, its real purpose is to improve the way child abuse cases are handled.
"We're hoping not only to relieve the overflow of cases, but to really gain some expertise so that these cases can be handled more efficiently and effectively," Merson said.
Jenkins, who investigated several of the 220child abuse cases reported to the state police last year, said police can't expect to handle abuse like other cases.
"You can't just walk in and expect a child to tell you what happened like an adult would," she said. "You have to spend some time with them and gain their trust."
Increased emphasis has been placed on improving child abuse investigations and prosecutions in Carroll and across the country since the controversial acquittal of the defendants in California's McMartin abuse case.
National abuse experts say the $16 million, six-year McMartin day care abuse case -- the longest and most expensive trial in the country's history -- was mismanaged and investigated improperly.
In March, county prosecutors, police and counselors gathered at the Quality Inn in Westminster for a child abuse seminar to learn a lesson from the handling of the case against Virginia McMartin and her son, Raymond Buckey.
In some areas, publicity surrounding the McMartin case has led to criticism of abuse investigators. But the state police investigators say they don't believe it will hurt them.
"It gives us so many more guidelines to follow," said Shah. "When something like this happens, it makes us look closer at how we do things. In the end, it should make our investigations more professional."
Jenkins said she thinks cases like McMartin also make people more aware of child abuse and more apt to report it to police.
In Carroll, all sexual child abuse and serious physical abuse cases are investigated jointly by the police and Department of Social Services child protective service investigators.
Alan Katz, assistant director of the Carroll Department of Social Services, said he believes thenew unit will improve investigations.
"The evidence in these cases may be similar to adult rape cases, but dealing with a child victimmakes a big difference," said Katz. "Small children are not good at explaining the way something happened to them. You have to know how to analyze what they are telling you."
Merson said the set-up and focus of the new unit may change in the next couple of months. The Carroll barracks is studying child abuse units in surrounding counties to see how they handle their cases.