DA addresses child abuse

In her monthly “Desk of the DA” letter, Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore discusses the topic of child abuse:

“Children need and deserve a safe, nurturing environment to grow and learn, and helping to provide that environment is one of our most important shared responsibilities as a community. April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and as chief law enforcement officer in Westchester County, I want to share with you the steps the District Attorney’s Office is taking to enhance children’s safety and health.

“Having served as a Family Court Judge, I know how difficult and overwhelming it can be for children and families to navigate the legal system. As District Attorney, I make sure that cases involving child victims, those under age 18, are handled effectively and appropriately by specially trained prosecutors and staff. My goal is to minimize any additional trauma a child or family might feel, while bringing those responsible for harming a child to justice.

“The Child Abuse Bureau of the DA’s Office handles every criminal offense involving a child victim, investigating and prosecuting the cases of child abuse reported to local law enforcement. In addition, each day the Bureau reviews every report of suspected child abuse or neglect involving a child in Westchester County that has been received by the State Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment (SCR). Most of the SCR allegations reviewed by my staff do not, in the final analysis, rise to the level of criminal activity.

“However, when the SCR allegations do present issues warranting law enforcement intervention, our child abuse prosecutors work together with local police to investigate and where appropriate, prosecute those offenders who commit crimes against children.

“As part of the work we do in this highly specialized area, we also refer cases for family, mental health or other services and interventions through Child Protective Services, Family Court, the Family Justice Center and other agencies. In 2010, my staff reviewed 7,958 SCR reports, referring 492 cases for law enforcement investigation. We prosecuted 419 cases in which children were the targeted victims.

“Very importantly, the Child Abuse Bureau in my office coordinates Westchester County’s Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT), designed to investigate child abuse.  This is a group of law enforcement, medical and service professionals who work together to protect child victims and ensure effective investigations and prosecutions of cases involving sexual abuse, serious physical abuse or fatality of a child. The MDT works to reduce the trauma to child victims by limiting the number of times a child is exposed to interviews necessary to the investigation and by providing medical examinations performed by forensically trained medical professionals.

“The heart of the MDT is the Westchester Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) where interviews and forensic medical examinations take place in a child-friendly, supportive environment on the grounds of the Westchester Medical Center. In 2009, Westchester’s MDT/CAC was recognized by New York State as a Tier 1 Center, an acknowledgement that the Center had achieved the highest standards for the investigation and prosecution of child abuse cases in the state.”

“Our office also serves as the co-coordinator of the Child Fatality Review Team (CFRT).  The CFRT brings together the resources of a multidisciplinary team of professionals, particularly the investigating agencies of the District Attorney, the local police, the Medical Examiner and the Department of Social Services( DSS), and other protective specialists to carefully review the circumstances and events that have led up to the death of any child who, at the time of death, was receiving services from the DSS or one of its many  contract agencies; whose death was reported to the SCR; or whose death is unexplained, unexpected or suspicious.

“The work of the CFRT often includes a public education component, intended to share the lessons learned from investigations of child fatalities in an effort to avoid preventable deaths in the future. Our work on the CFRT has resulted in recommendations on the proper and safe use of products that have been associated with fatalities, such as the improper use of nursing pillows and infant walkers. The CFRT has also made recommendations on practices such as providing a safe sleeping environment for babies and securing heavy objects such as televisions to prevent them from toppling over onto a child and causing death or other serious injury.

“Notwithstanding the work done by the District Attorney’s Office and our professional partners in this area, as with all effective public safety strategies, we need and want the help of the community as well. If you suspect a child is in immediate danger, call 911; to report suspected neglect or abuse of a child, call the SCR child abuse hot line at 1-800-342-3720, and let the professionals make the determination as to whether or not a child is safe in his or her environment.

“For more information, including all CFRT public reports, please visit www.westchesterda.net, or for a speaker on child safety, please contact the District Attorney’s Office at 914-995-3317.”