Investigators sharpen skills to protect children from abuse

Thursday, September 27, 2007

MARYLAND HEIGHTS, Mo. -- Professionals working on the front lines of child abuse cases met Wednesday to learn ways to improve their investigations and better safeguard children.

The Protect Our Children conference, which runs through Friday, drew more than 400 participants, including attorneys, police officers, counselors and clergy.

Sponsors included U.S Attorney's offices for eight judicial districts in five states -- Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa. The event aims to educate on the latest investigative practices and ways to work with victims, families and witnesses.

"These are all professionals. They're on top of their game, but this can refresh and re-energize them," said Ron Scaggs, law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney's office in St. Louis.

Franklin County, Mo., Sheriff Gary Toelke, well-known for his role in the safe return of three children in high-profile kidnapping cases, stressed the importance of cooperation between agencies in his lunchtime remarks.

"A lot of people can look at these cases and say it was luck, and a lot of it was, but what was happening behind the scenes that made that happen?" he asked the crowd. He cited the collaborative attitude of the FBI in the cases of Abby Woods, Ben Ownby and Shawn Hornbeck as key to the investigations.

Plano, Texas, Detective Mike Johnson and Jerri Sites with Child Protection Concepts in Washington, Mo., spoke about use of multidisciplinary teams in investigating and prosecuting child abuse cases.

Johnson said that in the past, multiple people would interview a child victim. Now, he said many communities use multidisciplinary teams made up of a prosecutor, a law enforcement representative, a child protective services representative and officials from the medical and clinical fields.

The two talked about best practice standards, like having on-call rotations so a team can respond immediately after a child tells someone abuse is occurring or someone discovers the abuse.

They said those aware of abuse need to report it immediately to authorities or hot lines, and not necessarily assume if they notify a superior in a setting like a school or a church that person will make the call.

Ideally, a forensic interview -- where a professional trained in children's communication and development speaks with the child to receive clear information about what happened -- should occur within an hour or two of the initial discovery and report of abuse. Johnson and Sites also advocated for conducting those interviews in child advocacy centers, intended to provide a safe setting.

Also at the event, Steve Schankman, the founder of a Missouri program and Web site to keep children safe online called INOBTR, or "I Know Better," spoke of the program's possible expansion to other states in 2008.

The program has been funded by donations but also recently received $150,000 in state funds. The program is working to train educators, police and others on Internet safety; is creating a speaker's bureau and additional information; and is using technology to get a better picture for trends and concerns related to Internet safety.

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