Gazette opinion: A crime-fighting team for Yellowstone County kids

2013-04-11T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: A crime-fighting team for Yellowstone County kids The Billings Gazette
April 11, 2013 12:10 am

Prosecuting crimes against children requires special skills and techniques that will gather evidence without causing further harm to the young victims.

Yellowtone County now has a team of nine people, specially trained, working together for children’s justice. The Yellowstone Valley Children’s Advocacy Center Multidisciplinary Team celebrated its commitment to children with leaders of the cooperating local and state agencies signing a memorandum of understanding. The signing event Tuesday demonstrated how all these agencies are putting a priority on children.

All Yellowstone County law enforcement departments are part of the team along with the state Child and Family Services Division and the Children’s Justice Center in the Attorney General’s Office. The Billings Clinic has provided crucial medical staff support. The Center for Children and Families has provided a home for the Advocacy Center at 3021 Third Ave. N.

The driving force in forming this team is County Attorney Scott Twito, who started working on the project when he took office 26 months ago. With an annual budget of $75,000, the team and Advocacy Center aren’t big expenses. However, some money is required for operation and for start-up equipment for the interview room and observation room. Twito has provided funding through his office and grant money has been obtained from the Montana Attorney General’s Office.

Members of the team interview child victims of sexual and physical abuse and gather medical evidence. So far, 48 forensic interviews have been conducted by the team since last summer. Only recently, the Child Advocacy Center has been set up for team members to use for interviews. The interview room is designed to be child-friendly. A separate observation room allows other team members to watch the interview and provide questions or suggestions to the officer conducting the interview. With this method, one interview replaces multiple questionings. The child only has to tell what happened once.

The Multidisciplinary Team is: coordinator Lynelle Amen, Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Detective Kevin Cunningham, Billings Police Sgt. Casey Hafner, Laurel Police Detective Jason Wells, Child and Family Services supervisor Roxanne Roller, Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Ann Marie McKittrick, county attorney victim-witness coordinator Gretchen Schillinger, Bree Anderson, a licensed professional counselor with the Center for Children and Families; and Cheryl Bradley, a pediatric R.N. with Billings Clinic.

This team is taking on tough, ugly crimes that many people don’t want to admit happen in our community. We salute the team and commend the leaders of their organizations for supporting justice for children.

Child abuse legislation

Meanwhile in Helena, Montana lawmakers need to support bills that will help ensure that adults who commit crimes against children are held accountable. One such simple, straightforward proposal is House Bill 74, which would require the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to promptly report certain serious cases of child abuse to local law enforcement or the attorney general. Most of the time, this happens anyway. However, the law doesn’t specifically require DPHHS to make timely reports, and occasionally a report of crime against a child has not been relayed to law enforcement.

A Yellowstone County case involving sexual abuse of a child brought this gap in the law to light. The abuse was reported to the sheriff’s office by the mother a year after she had reported it to DPHHS.

HB74 passed the House with bipartisan support in January, and finally was voted out of Senate Judiciary Committee April 4 with support from Shannon Augare, Anders Blewett, Scott Boulanger, John Brenden, Robyn Driscoll, Larry Jent and Cliff Larsen.

We call on the full Senate to support HB74 and vote to ensure that no criminal cases get lost between child protection and law enforcement.

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