Newer police and sheriff's deputies across the state will be better equipped to investigate child abuse with help from a law enforcement training project.
Officers and deputies often are the first point of contact in child abuse complaints, said state Attorney General Doug Peterson at a news conference Wednesday announcing the training series.
Nine law enforcement, county and state groups, led by Peterson, will make an eight-part DVD and notebook series on investigating child abuse available to new officers next month.
With the training, they will be effective in protecting children and being able to go forward with prosecution of criminal child abuse cases, Peterson said. It is meant to fill the need for training in the first 12 months after an officer is hired.
One important aspect of the training tells officers how to talk with children. Most of the time, they interact with adults, and talking to children requires a different approach, said Kerry Crosby, investigator with the Attorney General's office.
There is also information in the training on help that is available from child advocacy centers across the state.
Child abuse, sexual assault and neglect cases are unique cases, and this is another step that can be taken to narrow the gap to ensure these complaints are properly addressed and done quickly, Peterson said.
"We just don't want any of those calls to be ignored or failed to be properly investigated," he said.
Children as young as 5 are sometimes put on the witness stand to testify, to describe the abuse they suffered at the hands of someone the child loves and trusts.
"That's a real, real difficult thing to do," Crosby said.
Sgt. Mark Unvert, with the Lincoln Police Department's family crimes unit, said a child victim who testifies in court frequently does so with their abuser sitting in front of them.
That's why a strong case and the forensic evidence are so important, to be able to tell the story through physical evidence, fibers, DNA and things of that nature, Peterson said.
Child abuse and neglect complaints come both to law enforcement and to the state child abuse and neglect hotline.
Amanda Nawrocki, child and family services administrator of the child abuse and neglect hotline, said every report to the hotline generates a form that is entered into the computer system. The staff uses a structured decision-making tool to decide if the Department of Health and Human Services would be involved in the complaint.
Typically, any complaint of criminal abuse or neglect that involves a person not a member of the child's household would go to law enforcement. Any criminal complaint about a family or household member would involve both HHS and law enforcement.
"We send every intake that we generate over to law enforcement," she said.
The hotline received 33,803 calls in 2014. From those calls, 12,221, or 36 percent, were accepted for investigation by the department, and 2,575 complaints were substantiated. Those complaints involved 4,137 children.
By law, police or sheriffs' deputies remove children from homes in which they are in immediate danger, and then an affidavit is filed with the court to be acted on within 48 hours. HHS determines placement of children.
Child protective services looks into social issues and into what services can be put into place to help families whose children are at risk, Nawrocki said.
Crosby said Child Protective Services has a unique role in child protection issues, but many of the complaints are criminal cases, and HHS workers don't have training on how to gather and preserve evidence and have it analyzed by a laboratory, and how to interview criminal suspects.
"We work with them hand in hand, but they just simply have a different role than law enforcement does," he said.
Carol Stitt, training coordinator with the League of Municipalities, said the DVDs and notebooks should be mailed out by mid-August to every law enforcement office in the state.