Following the recommendations of an audit released last week, Carroll County officials are moving forward with plans to revamp a task force specializing in child abuse and sexual assault cases.
Changing the staff and creating child-friendly interview rooms are at the top of the list, said Jolene G. Sullivan, director of the county's Department of Citizen Services.
The department will take the helm in restructuring the CASA unit, with an emphasis on hiring a program manager who will oversee the administrative tasks of the office and leave investigators with more time to focus on their cases.
"We're trying to provide the best services we possibly can to children being impacted by sexual abuse or neglect and women suffering because of abuse," Sullivan said. "We're just moving forward, jointly, to accomplish all of our goals."
The CASA unit was formed more than a dozen years ago as a partnership between the Carroll County state's attorney's office and the Maryland State Police, who assigned an investigator to supervise the team. The unit also worked closely with Carroll County General Hospital, the Board of Education and the county Department of Social Services.
There are now nine investigators and a crisis counselor in the unit. The audit found that as the unit evolved and added more partner agencies -- the Westminster Police Department and the county Sheriff's Office -- it grew increasingly difficult to keep everyone informed.
Prompted by concerns raised by Carroll State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes, such as excessive overtime and lack of interagency communication, the audit was conducted this year by Gary L. Horst and C. Lawrence Wiskeman of the county's Office of Performance Auditing and Special Projects.
Besides hiring a program manager, Horst and Wiskeman recommended several other steps, including reducing the number of civilian investigators, consolidating member agencies in one location and assigning a separate budget for the CASA unit.
Barnes has made several personnel changes -- most before the audit was released. He demoted the deputy state's attorney in charge of CASA cases and promoted a senior assistant state's attorney to the position. He also reassigned another supervisor, who was overseeing civilian investigators. An administrative assistant also has left the unit.
In addition, one civilian investigator left the unit in the fall, while another with nearly two decades of experience with children is expected to leave this summer. There are no plans to replace the two civilian investigators.
If the auditors' recommendations are followed, the three civilian investigators working for the unit will be phased out, as would one sheriff's deputy.
In place of the investigators, auditors' advised moving two social workers, a prosecutor and a new investigator/social worker into the CASA unit. County officials are looking for a site to house the reconfigured team.
Officials estimate that the county contributes $800,000 to the CASA unit.
Sullivan said the first priority in the restructuring is to hire a program manager. She said she is visiting neighboring child advocacy centers to see how those program managers work.
Sullivan said she will oversee the conversion of a room at the Department of Social Services into a child-friendly interview room where video equipment will be installed.
Horst, the auditor, recommended that interviews be taped, because findings showed that suspects who viewed such interviews were more likely to accept a plea bargain than go to court and confront their accuser.
Sullivan said that, in the meantime, the CASA unit is functioning well and weathering the changes, with supervisors from the state police, the state's attorney's office and the Department of Social Services meeting daily.