By Mannix Porterfield
Sexual crimes against children are on the upswing, and once again Tuesday, a special State Police unit assigned to investigate them pleaded for additional manpower.
Three years ago, troopers working in the Crimes Against Children Unit handled between two and seven cases on average, but a year ago, the number climbed from five to 10, a special legislative panel was told.
For the second time, the Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect heard from state troopers, and even more testimony is likely next month when the panel — composed of the Women’s Caucus of the House of Delegates — conducts its third session.
“The statistics are startling,” First Lady Joanne Tomblin, who sat in on the meeting, said afterward.
“The need to have more people working on this is definitely something that came out today.”
Mrs. Tomblin said she has followed children’s issues for several years.
“I do have an interest about all children and crimes against children in this state,” she said.
“I think everybody should have an interest in that.”
Lt. Donnie Frye, who heads up the special unit, advised one panelist, Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, that he would examine the State Code to see what changes are in order to better equip the unit in bringing offenders to justice.
Delegate Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming, a co-chair, said the committee plans to hear an explanation in September by the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Institute on how the law needs to be tweaked so that cases against abuse and neglect can be prosecuted.
Lt. Reggie Patterson, the recruiting coordinator for the Department of Public Safety, provided a wide range of figures showing that sex crimes against children is on the rise.
“You can see that it’s consistently growing,” the officer said.
Across the state, he said, the State Police have handled about 40 percent of such investigations.
Frye told the caucus that the unit has 18 officers and made 160 arrests last year, but since multiple charges were pressed in many of those, the actual felonies totaled 814.
“One person may have 30 counts of sex assault or child pornography,” he said.
“Most of what we do is a felony. We very seldom have anything dealing with a child that is considered a misdemeanor.”
The unit accepts referrals from the Department of Health and Human Services, and last year, it dealt with 579 such reports, Frye said.
At times, when troopers lead a raid into a house, Frye said, other crimes become evident.
“Obviously, when we walk into someone’s house and you’re serving a search warrant for child pornography, you find drugs, you find a lot of stuff that may not pertain to that crime,” he said.
Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, wondered if sex crimes against minors is more prevalent in certain regions, but Frye was adamant that they occur anywhere in the state.
“It’s widespread across the state, across the country,” he said.
“They’re not particular to Kanawha County, not particular to McDowell County. It’s everywhere.”
One exception is child pornography, since some rural pockets have limited access to the Internet, he said.
Frye said the unit not only probes crimes but conducts an outreach program in an effort to help children protect themselves. The unit conducted 172 presentations last year, speaking to audiences that numbered more than 14,000.
This phase of the operation has become even more significant with the prevalence of “sexting,” or sending lurid content via cell phones, he said.
No statistics are available for the number of accused offenders who themselves were preyed on in their youth, the officer said, but added the percentage would be high.
And, he said, about half of those charged are repeat offenders.
“When you interview an adult suspect, a lot of times, more than not, that person will tell you they were molested as a child,” the lieutenant said.
“Some may do that to get your sympathy. There are no real stats.”
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