Balto. Co. takes one-stop approach to prosecuting child sex abuse cases Doctor, police, social worker are in one place, making investigations easier.

October 07, 1991|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Evening Sun Staff

In July, on the same day she finally told someone about the sexual abuse, the 8-year-old Baltimore County girl was examined by a pediatrician who specializes in such cases.

The doctor confirmed that the child had been having sexual intercourse for several years. The story the little girl told police and social workers led them to suspect her father.

Within a few hours, police drew up an arrest warrant and confronted the man, a 42-year-old owner of a small business. Caught by surprise and feeling guilty, the father confessed, police said.

"This is a typical case," said Scott Shellenberger, an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore County who prosecutes the growing number of cases of child sexual abuse.

In just eight years, the number of reported cases of incest and other forms of child sexual abuse in Baltimore County have tripled from about 160 in 1983 to more than 500 last year.

"I don't know that there's more cases of abuse today" than in years past, Shellenberger said. "I just think it's being reported more today."

In cases such as that of the business owner charged with sexually abusing his daughter, police are able to act swiftly, Shellenberger said, because the county has a one-stop approach to investigating allegations of child sexual abuse.

The doctor, police detective and social worker are all in one place, the Child Advocacy Center in Towson. Shellenberger and another prosecutor, Robin Coffin, are just a few blocks away.

In most jurisdictions, police detectives, social workers, prosecutors and doctors work in separate locations and sometimes find it difficult to coordinate their efforts.

The Baltimore County approach, while not the first in the United States, was the first of its kind in Maryland. Howard and Anne Arundel counties are contemplating similar centers as is the town of Bel Air in Harford County.

The center is so innovative it was recognized by Rutgers University in New Jersey last year as being an example of an "excellent cooperative model," said Dr. Marc Holzer, director of the National Center for Public Productivity at Rutgers.

"What they're doing is they're cutting through red tape," Holzer said. "In effect, they're speeding up the process. . . . It's not just that the process is innovative, but the outcome is effective."

Indeed, under the old system, while police and social workers and the specialist, Dr. Michael Reichel, were all doing essentially the same things, they were not communicating effectively -- and sometimes not at all.

Michael A. Pulver, a former prosecutor who headed the state's attorney's office's child sexual abuse unit before and after the center was founded in July 1989, said the agencies sometimes worked at cross purposes.

"Here was the Department of Social Services doing an investigation and they weren't sharing the information with us," recalled Pulver, who has since taken a job in private practice. "In fact, they thought they weren't allowed to tell us."

Typically, said Pulver, when an allegation was made under the old system, police conducted their own interviews, as did the social workers. If sexual abuse seemed to have occurred, the parents of the child were asked to take the child to Reichel.

But they often didn't, Pulver said.

"And many times the doctors didn't know all the information the police and social workers knew," Pulver added.

The duplicated efforts often had another unintended effect: It further traumatized the child, Pulver said.

Under the new system, the police detectives and social workers bTC share offices in the same suite at the Advocacy Center. And down the hall is the doctor's office, which is specially equipped to detect evidence of child sexual abuse.

When a call comes in, the detective and social worker can go out together.

A special interview room also is an important part of the center. Besides the two-way mirror, the room has child-size furniture, many toys and a colorful wall mural to put children at ease.

Pam Spring, a social worker who investigates child sexual abuse cases, said the interview room has helped make children comfortable and more able to talk about so-called "bad touches."

Based on a model program in Huntsville, Ala., the Baltimore County program got started in 1989 with a $91,000 federal grant.

The original grant went toward renting office space and buying furniture and other supplies.

But most of the center's budget was, and is, funded through the general county budget in the form of salaries paid to the six police officers, eight social workers, the county health department doctor and nurse, and the prosecutors.

Because of past record-keeping methods, authorities are unable to make valid comparisons between the outcome of cases now and before the center opened. However, they believe that the increased efficiency of investigations has led to more confessions by offenders, thus more convictions and more treatment.

Because it's difficult to get child victims to testify in court, Pulver said, most successful convictions of child molesters come by way of confession.

"With the center, police are able to gather a lot of information quickly and confront the suspect, who usually is feeling bad about it and will often confess," Pulver said. "Getting to them before they begin to circle the wagons, so to speak, is important."

Pulver emphasized that a key goal of prosecution is getting the offender, and the child victim, therapy and counseling.

In the case of the small business owner, police say that when confronted with the evidence, he admitted the abuse, but he has yet to be convicted. His trial is scheduled for Oct. 21.

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