Audit shows flaws in child abuse unit

Carroll evaluation suggests having fewer investigators

Regional

April 28, 2004|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Carroll County auditors released yesterday a performance evaluation on a local task force specializing in sexual assault and child abuse cases, saying the unit could serve victims better with fewer investigators, an administrative manager and a larger office to consolidate staff from participating agencies and to provide a more child-friendly environment.

Gary L. Horst and C. Lawrence Wiskeman, auditors with the county's Office of Performance Auditing & Special Projects, presented their findings on the Child Abuse and Sexual Assault (CASA) unit to the county commissioners yesterday afternoon. Horst and Wiskeman focused on bringing together the agencies that work with the unit and unifying them more efficiently. The commissioners unanimously approved the audit and its recommendations.

Prompted by concerns raised by State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes, including what he called excessive overtime and interagency friction, the audit was conducted over three months and included interviews with several dozen people in CASA and representatives of the agencies it worked with.

"A lot of folks were looking down their own little tunnels," Horst said after the audit was released. "They had a tendency to be focused on what they needed. What they all needed is to be pulled together."

Formed more than a dozen years ago, the CASA unit began as a joint effort among Maryland State Police investigators, civilian investigators and prosecutors from the Carroll state's attorney's office. CASA added two agencies - the sheriff's office and the Westminster Police Department - and evolved into a unit with nine investigators. It also included an administrative assistant, a crisis counselor and prosecutors.

The unit is known for its successful prosecutions, such as those of a former schools superintendent accused of raping and sexually abusing an elementary school-age girl and a former priest who pleaded guilty to molesting two boys.

Two years ago, then-deputy state's attorney Tracy A. Gilmore was asked for her expertise by Baltimore prosecutors handling the investigation of the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell, whose trial on molestation charges is scheduled for June 3. Gilmore was replaced as the lead CASA prosecutor this year.

Horst and Wiskeman made recommendations to the board that included hiring a full-time program manager through the county's Department of Citizen Services; phasing out the three civilian investigators now working in the unit; adding a civilian investigator to deal with cases not handled by the Department of Social Services; drafting a memorandum of understanding among partner agencies; creating executive and advisory boards; and creating a budget specifically for the unit's needs.

"We took the approach of looking for best practices and establishing a benchmark," Horst told commissioners. "This is not a compliance audit, but a performance audit. We looked for ways to make it better."

He said the auditors built a model based on other child advocacy centers in the state.

Horst told commissioners that to help develop team-building within the unit, he and Wiskeman also recommended bringing social workers, Child Protective Services and an on-site prosecutor to work with investigators. "When the call comes in, we don't want our resources scattered about. We want to have a team intact and ready to go," Horst said.

Commissioners reacted favorably to the recommendations.

"I want to tell you I'm impressed with the level of objectivity and professionalism you put into your work. This will help us move forward," said Commissioner Dean L. Minnich.

The county audit follows on the heels of a performance review released last month by Maj. Nicholas A. Plazio, a retired state trooper now employed by the sheriff's office. In his executive summary, he also said his report came at the request of Barnes, the state's attorney.

Plazio's review, which he called the "CASA audit," focused on investigative procedures. But other than interviewing the unit's former administrative assistants, Plazio said he did not speak to other investigators in the unit.

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