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West Virginia legislators focus on crimes against children

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Sgt. Danny Swiger, left, and Delegate Linda Phillips, right, discuss the importance of legislators thinking twice about how much money the state should be spending on crimes against children. Sgt. Danny Swiger, left, and Delegate Linda Phillips, right, discuss the importance of legislators thinking twice about how much money the state should be spending on crimes against children.
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At least four pieces of legislation presented to lawmakers this January will involve crucial changes in keeping children safe. 

Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said the Child Advocacy Network is vital in helping children all over the state. She said one of the stipulations the Legislature's Crimes Against Children Committee is asking lawmakers for is an increase in the network's funding.

The Crimes Against Children Committee, along with several members of the West Virginia State Police, discussed the new legislation at the Capitol Dec. 10. 

"We need to be focusing on not just bringing perpetrators to justice but also making sure these broken children get treatment," she said. "These people are damaged." 

The West Virginia Child Advocacy Centers provide 42 counties with evidence-based mental health services, medical services, extended forensic evaluations, evidence-based child abuse prevention programs and intensive family advocacy. 

About 40 percent of the 2,633 children served in the Mountain State at CAC's last year alone were too young to attend grade school. 

Committee Chairwoman Delegate Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming, said ensuring the WVSP is given enough officers is another step in ensuring the CAC unit is staffed with professionals dedicated to bringing sexual predators to justice.

"Our state police (have) a special unit dedicated to preventing and resolving crimes against children, but they are understaffed and overburdened," Phillips said. "We need to ensure that a new class of state troopers graduate so we can move some of the experienced officers over to the unit."

The committee's minority chairwoman, Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire, said child abuse in the state knows no boundaries. 

"It can appear anywhere," she said. "It is crucial (lawmakers) provide (police) with the manpower."

Other changes the committee suggests would include tweaking language of child pornography laws. As it stands, the law is not clear whether someone accessing a site is considered intentionally viewing it if they look at pornographic images but don't download them. On some sites, a visitor can view the images but unless police can prove the visitor is a constant visitor of that site, they have no case. Additionally, felonies would be defined as viewing more than 500 images and a felony for repeat offenders.

The deputy director of the unit for the state police can attest to the amount of work it takes to run an understaffed force.

"We want to have a more specialized group of troopers dedicated to the unit," said Sgt. Danny Swiger. 

With 18 troopers assigned to the unit, 14 investigators and three supervisors, Swiger said the graduating class of 20 new officers this March is simply not enough to staff the various troops in the state and have enough experienced troopers left to staff the specialized units.

"(Police have) no dedicated funding for cadet classes each year; it has to come from funding from the Legislature," he said. "We want to be proactive in our approach, but (troopers) are overwhelmed."

Since its inception in January 2013, the Crimes Against Children Unit, as of Dec. 5, had done 508 criminal investigations. The unit has conducted 1,375 interviews, of which 457 were interviews of children related to sexual and/or physical abuse.

There currently are 4,119 registered sex offenders in the state, with 808 individuals on the child abuse registry.