Unit handling abuse cases faces reforms


As the caseload for Carroll County's Child Abuse and Sexual Assault team climbs to 500 a year, the specialized unit that was started 13 years ago is undergoing changes that county State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes said will strengthen it and make it more efficient.

Barnes made the changes after what he called lapses in leadership, including overtime abuse, overly aggressive tactics and friction among the local agencies that make up the unit.

He also has called for a performance audit of the unit; demoted a deputy state's attorney who prosecuted sex-offense cases; and disciplined civilian investigators, some of whom will be replaced with sheriff's deputies.

"I'm the chief law enforcement officer in this county, and I'm accountable to the people of this county," Barnes said of his initiative for the unit to undergo a comprehensive evaluation. "There's no vindictiveness in this."

The shake-up began when Barnes discovered that overtime spending - which averaged $2,300 a year - jumped to $30,000 last year. Half of that was claimed by one civilian investigator, he said.

Barnes employs three civilian investigators and an administrative assistant on the team, as well as a deputy state's attorney who leads the prosecution of cases.

This year, in response to perceived lapses in leadership of the unit, he demoted Tracy A. Gilmore, the deputy state's attorney who has supervised the civilians in the unit since 1995. Gilmore, now an assistant state's attorney, declined to comment.

In her place, Barnes promoted Senior Assistant State's Attorney David P. Daggett, who will take the lead on sex-offense cases.

Barnes also said that despite the team's high-profile successes, which include the recent convictions of a former school superintendent and a former priest on rape and molestation charges, the investigative unit's tactics ran counter to producing winnable cases.

He recently requested a performance audit of the unit, which is being conducted by two county auditors and a major in the sheriff's office.

Barnes blames some of the unit's problems on Maryland State Police, which assigns an officer to supervise the team. Sgt. James T. DeWees led the unit from 2001 until last month, when Sgt. John Carhart became the supervisor.

"There was nothing [at CASA] that was running correctly," Barnes said. "I have had meetings with state police repeatedly for the last 18 months. I tried to rectify the problem, but it only got worse."

State Police Capt. Scott Yinger, commander of the Westminster barracks, said he has never had reason to doubt the integrity of the unit or its command.

"I commend Sergeant DeWees for his efforts to supervise the unit. I have the utmost respect for the investigators in the unit - past, present and future - that take on as part of their mission extremely emotional and sensitive investigations," Yinger said.

Others who work closely with CASA agreed.

"Over the last three years, we've seen increasing level of cooperation from a mixture of law enforcement and civilian investigators at CASA, and it's worked well for the victims," said Jo Ann Hare, director of Rape Crisis, a nonprofit agency in Carroll County.

Yinger drafted a memorandum of understanding that he hopes will clear up the chain of command and each agency's role in CASA. He said that as more agencies join the unit, it is vital that this document clearly define the roles of each.

Carroll's CASA unit was founded in 1991 with three investigators. Former supervisor DeWees said that the caseload steadily increased.

In 2001, the unit handled 275 cases. A year later it handled 350, and last year nearly 500.

Within the past year, the 11-member team has added a Westminster police officer and another sheriff's deputy. They've also lost one civilian investigator and a state trooper. This summer, a state trooper who has been with the unit since it began is expected to retire, and a civilian investigator with nearly two decades of experience is also expected to leave, Barnes said.

Barnes said that as civilian investigators leave, they will be replaced by sheriff's deputies.

The loss of seasoned investigators is troubling for those who work closely with the victims who initiate CASA inquiries.

"I'm very disappointed at the departures of these very experienced investigators, and I'm concerned about what direction the unit is going to move in with all these changes," said Dr. Robert Wack, director of hospital pediatrics at Carroll Hospital Center and Westminster's newest city council member.

"I think the world of them," Wack said of the CASA investigators. "Part of investigating these things is not just apprehending the perpetrator but helping the victim start along the long path to recovery. These folks have set the bar very high."

Barnes is confident that law enforcement officers can step in without missing a beat. "Any qualified investigator can engage at this successfully," he said.

He used the same logic in replacing Gilmore - a prosecutor with more than a decade of experience with sex-offense cases - with Daggett, who has rarely handled such cases.

"There's nothing magical about sex-offense cases," Daggett said. "It comes down to persuading and dealing with victims and families. It's not a whole different set of rules."

Barnes also wants to re-evaluate what he thinks are questionable procedures that led to a juvenile master's written reprimand and orders to suppress evidence in several cases.

Carroll juvenile master Peter M. Tabatsko took the CASA unit to task last year for coercing confessions out of young suspects.

Tabatsko wrote, "It is very sad that the CASA unit obviously does not understand the purposes of the Juvenile Code. ... By these heavy-handed illegal actions, justice, the alleged victim, and society all suffer."

Yinger said that as a result of the master's guidance, CASA personnel and the state's attorney's office met and changed procedures so there would be no confusion about juvenile suspects and their understanding of Miranda rights.

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