The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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September 25, 2013

Child abuse laws need updated, prosecutor, police agree

CHARLESTON — State Police want softer punishment for first-time offenders of child abuse and neglect with a stipulation for mandatory parenting classes, but stronger penalties in pornography matters so they aren’t forced to take charges into federal courts.

And, Assistant Kanawha County Prosecutor Erica Lord, testifying Tuesday before the same legislative panel, agreed with two troopers the code needs to be upgraded in child pornography, saying judges tend to view such cases as “victimless.”

“Our judges do not take this crime seriously,” Lord told the Select Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, noting the offenders generally are accorded home confinement or probation.

Lord said she has achieved some success in getting such criminals behind bars but insisted the penalties are too weak.

“I’m standing here as a prosecutor begging you to help,” she intoned.

lst Sgt. Danny Swiger of the State Police Crimes Against Children Unit said most child porn cases are taken to federal court because the penalties in West Virginia are too light to bother with prosecution.

Swiger called on lawmakers to upgrade the code so that penalties are more in sync with the federal government: two years in prison for possessing 10 to 50 images; two to 10 years for 51 to 599 images; and a five- to 15-year sentence for more than 600 images and no right to appeal.

“That sounds kind of harsh,” the officer said. “No, it’s not. It’s supply and demand. As long as there is someone out there that is demanding and wanting to see that image, people are out there perpetrating against that child to create that image. So, it’s not a victimless crime.”

In interviews with inmates convicted of possessing child pornography, Swiger said more than 80 percent admitted having contact with a child.

“They had a sexual attraction to the child,” he said.

Swiger also proposed expanding the felony murder statute so that a parent who kills a child via neglect or abuse can be charged with a first-degree offense.

In Martinsburg, he said, an irate father forced a child to squat over a heated frying pan as a disciplinary measure, causing severe burns that proved fatal.

“That person deserved to spend the rest of his life in prison,” the sergeant said.

Sgt. Talia Divita spoke of another issue — middle-aged men preying on teenage girls, wooing them in childhood for a sexual encounter when they reach the age of consent.

’I think the world has changed with technology,” she told the committee, chaired by Delegate Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming.

“I think our kids are at a higher risk with this kind of stuff and they’re preyed upon. All have cell phones, computers and they run them all the time. Some sex offenders — pedophiles, perverts, whatever you want to call them — they’re grooming these kids. They’re starting at 14 or 15, then at 16, they’re actually having sexual intercourse with them.”

In her role with the special State Police unit, Divita said she poses as a 12-year-old girl and knows firsthand how men in their 40s and older strike up conversations with children.

“They’re building trust for a sexual encounter when they turn 16,” the officer said.

Swiger, likewise, drove home a point on this subject.

“My daughter is 16 and I just can’t imagine her coming home with someone my age.”

Divita called for the addition of misdemeanor crimes to child abuse and neglect so that parents would undergo mandatory parenting classes rather than face felony charges for unintended harm.

“Sometimes we run across families that just don’t know any better,” she said. “They weren’t raised the way most of us were raised.”

Misdemeanor charges would give offending parents the opportunity to make amends and create a livable environment for the children, she suggested.

“We try to focus on keeping kids in the houses with families,” she said.

“We’re not looking to crowd the jails. We’re not looking to haul the people into jails. We have to figure out a way to help some of these kids that are abused and neglected.”

On the other hand, Divita emphasized, this isn’t meant to be a free pass to go on making life miserable for a child.

“We’re not going to give them two or three chances,” the officer said.

“We can’t do that. “

In one example,, she said a man broke down in tears after beating his child, explaining he didn’t know how to make the youngster mind.

“That’s how he was raised and that’s how he was raising his kids,” Divita said.

“He just didn’t know any better. He was very upset. Cried. Wanted to know how to discipline his kids, how to correct them.”

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