Tom Miller: New legislative committee to study crimes against children
One of the most disturbing legislative hearings last week in Charleston came when a state trooper from the special State Police Crimes Against Children unit told the brand new Select Committee on Crimes Against Children that police have arrested 107 people for 474 felonies involving children in the first six months of this year.
"Those are the major cases we're looking at," First Sgt. Danny Swiger told the new committee, which was created because of concerns from the Women's Caucus in the House of Delegates. "There are many more out there. When you're talking about child pornography, these are people possessing thousands of images."
Swiger said that in addition to those actually formally charged, members of the special unit have interviewed 736 people, 140 of whom are considered suspects, along with 255 child advocacy centers and 341 other interview sessions.
"Hundreds of kids that we are missing are truly being neglected and abused that are in drug environments at home," he said.
Delegate Linda Sumner, R-Raleigh, told of a visit to a hospital by members of the Women's Caucus during the last legislative session where they saw newborns addicted to drugs. She said it was "one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen." She asked Sgt. Swiger if the parents of these children could be charged with child neglect.
Swiger wasn't sure but suggested it could become a "political argument." And he doesn't believe this is covered under current West Virginia law. "I don't think there is anything specific in law that says if you take this drug pregnant, and the child is addicted, that you have committed a crime," he added.
Delegate Kelli Soboyna, R-Cabell, said she was one of a group of legislators allowed to observe a sting operation conducted by the unit. She said that during the exercise a man who assumed falsely that the undercover trooper chatting with him via computer was really a juvenile transmitted a photo of his genitals.
When police conduct these raids involving child exploitation, Swiger said it is not unusual to find "hundreds, if not thousands" of such images that are often shared in different areas of the country.
This special newly-formed legislative study group is led by Delegate Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming, and Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, is vice chair. All 21 women currently serving in the House of Delegates are members as well as Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, who is the only woman in the 34-member state Senate.
Child-welfare advocates in West Virginia are praising House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, for establishing this new study committee. President Kathy Szafran of Wheeling-based Crittenton Services, Inc. which serves more than 650 women, children and families in West Virginia, said most have suffered abuse, neglect or other crimes.
She said the rising rate of abuse and neglect is alarming and the high rate of sexual abuse is heartbreaking.
Current State Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, was a leader in passing West Virginia's version of the so-called "Castle Doctrine" law on self-defense that has become such a hot topic following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Florida in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
Kessler worked with former Sen. Shirley Love, D-Fayette, when Kessler was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to pass this state's "Castle Doctrine" law, which harkens back to the old English law that a "man's home is his castle ... and there is no duty to retreat in one's own home to protect oneself, his/her home, or his family from an intruder or attacker."
He said the recognized common law of "self defense" was that a "man's house is his castle, hence the name "Castle Doctrine."
"It provides that an innocent person is permitted to use reasonable and proportionate force, including deadly force, to repel an attacker, without a duty to retreat if the person reasonably believes he or she or another is in imminent danger of death or seriously bodily harm ..." Kessler added.
While there are 698 troopers working for the West Virginia State Police, only one of them is a black woman and just 12 of them are black men. No wonder State Police Superintendent Jay Smithers admitted to a legislative committee last week in Charleston that the agency needs to recruit more minority officers. But the greater need is to simply hire more troopers.
"The best-case scenario for us ... is to educate members of the Legislature of the fact that we know ... in order for us to legitimately do the task that by code we are called upon to do, we need an additional 275 people," Smithers told the Legislature's Select Committee on Minority Issues during an interim meeting last week. Despite a current annual budget appropriation of about $108 million, Smithers said his agency is in "dire need" of more funding.
Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.