Caseload demands staffing increase

CASA team to add one prosecutor and an investigator

September 02, 2001|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

A much-needed prosecutor and investigator are expected this month to join the team of Carroll County police and staff who are handling an increasing load of child-abuse and sexual-assault cases.

"The state's attorney is gracious enough to give us another prosecutor and the state police to give us an investigator, and trust me, the unit needs it and appreciates it," said Maryland State Police Sgt. James T. DeWees, supervisor of the Child Abuse/Sexual Assault (CASA) unit.

Despite an increase in cases, CASA has had the same staffing level since it began in 1992. CASA expects to investigate 400 to 450 cases this year, up from 380 last year and 274 in 1999.

Carroll State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes received authorization from the county commissioners last month for an additional prosecutor, for about $40,000 a year. He is interviewing applicants for the job.

The state police will assign a trooper full time as an additional CASA investigator this month, said Lt. Terry L. Katz, commander of the Westminster barracks.

In addition to DeWees, the CASA unit includes an officer who serves as deputy supervisor, another state trooper and three civilian investigators, all of whom investigate cases, he said. There also is a crisis counselor and an office coordinator.

One county prosecutor is assigned full time to the unit, and Deputy State's Attorney Tracy A. Gilmore serves as its supervising prosecutor and handles some of its court cases.

Gilmore said she began working with CASA almost as soon as she joined Barnes' office in January 1995, and has never stopped.

When it came time to discuss the office's budget wishes with the Carroll County commissioners, she said, their priority was adding a prosecutor to the unit - and that was approved last month.

Time-consuming cases

The state's attorney's office has about 150 felony cases from the unit pending in court, Barnes said. These cases require more time than the usual criminal case both in pretrial preparation and post-conviction follow-up.

"These cases are very complex cases, and because of their nature, they're all very litigation-prone," Barnes said. "One case can involve weeks and months of one prosecutor's time."

This year the CASA team has focused on high-profile cases involving three Carroll teachers charged with child sexual abuse.

Over the course of three weeks, the unit investigated and arrested the three - Francis Scott Key High substitute teacher Kimberly L. Merson, student teacher Tracie L. Mokry and longtime Taneytown Elementary teacher Harold W. Fair Jr. - on charges of having sexual contact with students.

Merson pleaded guilty in July to four counts of felony sexual child abuse, admitting that she had sexual contact with nine male students she knew from Francis Scott Key High School and that she served alcohol to them and another boy.

Felony charges against Mokry were dropped, but she still faces charges of providing alcohol to minors.

Fair was charged with 31 counts of sexually abusing six boys.

By the numbers

DeWees said the unit's complaints involve about 30 percent adults and 70 percent children, including any death of a child. Of the child-abuse complaints, about 70 percent involve possible sexual abuse and about 30 percent involve physical abuse.

DeWees reviews every report, he said. After winnowing out unfounded complaints from about 1,000 received, he said, "we will investigate this year about 400 to 450 cases."

Adults in positions of authority, such as teachers, social workers and police officers, are required by law to report suspected abuse, he said. Sometimes, an angry child may falsely tell someone that he was injured.

Most reports come in three ways: from the Department of Social Services; from police officers answering calls in the community, and calls directly to CASA. Most of the Social Services reports come through the schools.

"We have a wonderful relationship with the Board of Education," he said. "If it seems like a lot of numbers ... that's because it's very easy to report in this county."

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