The Times West Virginian

July 26, 2013

Rising rate of child abuse and neglect in West Virginia gets badly needed attention

Times West Virginian

— Earlier this week, the 21 women serving in the West Virginia House of Delegates had their first meeting as members of a new legislative subcommittee.

Their goal?

To change state laws in an effort to better protect children.

The new Select Committee on Crimes Against Children is a bipartisan, bicameral subcommittee that formed during this month’s interim meeting period of the West Virginia Legislature, and it’s comprised entirely of women.

The creation of the committee is being praised by child-welfare advocates statewide, who say crimes against children are all too common.

And they’re right.

There are sexual crimes, and Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said she is shocked by the number of child pornography cases in West Virginia.

“Although our State Police deserve praise for a 100 percent conviction rate, we need to ensure they have greater resources to protect our children from becoming victims of these modern-day, horrifying crimes,” she said.

There’s abuse, which the committee saw firsthand when it took a field trip to CAMC’s Women’s and Children’s Hospital to see the effects of prescription drug abuse on expectant mothers and their newborns.

“We have examined many issues, but determined that our immediate focus should be on child abuse and neglect and other crimes against children,” said Delegate Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming, who co-chairs the committee.

Lawmakers have also cited gaps in the legal definition of child abuse and neglect, a lack of experienced officers and the need to make the state sex offender registry and Internet Crimes Against Children Unit more effective.

“We realized there was more work to be done to determine what we need to do through legislation to address this problem. I see a lot more work ahead for us,” said Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire.

That work is something Kathy Szafran is pleased to see being addressed. She’s the president and CEO of Crittenton Services Inc., a behavioral health agency that serves more than 650 young women, children and families in the state, so she’s seen the long-lasting emotional scars abuse creates.

“The rising rate of child abuse and neglect in our state is alarming. And the frighteningly high number of sexual abuse and assault cases among children is heart-wrenching,” Szafran said. “These are issues that cannot wait. Our children can’t wait.”

First Sgt. Danny Swiger is another person who sees the crimes firsthand. The trooper said that in the first six months of this year, police in the special State Police Crimes Against Children Unit arrested 107 people for 474 felony crimes.

“And those are the major cases we’re looking at,” Swiger told members of the Select Committee on Crimes Against Children during their meeting this week. “There are many more out there. When you’re talking about child pornography, these are people possessing thousands of images.”

Besides those actually formally charged, Swiger said members of the special State Police Crimes Against Children Unit interviewed 736 people, including 140 considered suspects, along with 255 child advocacy centers and 341 other interview sessions.

“Those are huge numbers,” he said.

It’s heartbreaking to think there are people who would knowingly harm innocent children.

But it’s comforting to know there are people, like the 21 women serving on the Select Committee on Crimes Against Children, who are leading efforts to better protect those children in harm’s way.