Law enforcement taking bigger role in child abuse cases because of DCFS law change

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Budget cuts in the Division of Child and Family Services because of COVID-19 and a legislative change in Utah law this summer is forcing law enforcement to take on more casework protecting children from child abuse.

“It might take us a little longer to file, to have the resources to even do the investigations in the long run,” says Davis County Sheriff’s Office Captian Jennifer Daley. “We still care. We will still put the same level of investigative work we did in the first place there is just the lack of the [Child Protective Service] worker right now.”

Children have a special place in police officer’s hearts for more than one reason.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is there are a lot of cases of child abuse and child sex abuse that come into the police department on a regular basis,” says Unified Police Sergeant Melody Cutler.

During the fiscal year of 2019, the Division of Child and Family Service or DCFS saw 21,401 cases that were investigated with law enforcement.

Roughly 53 percent or 11,430 cases involved physical or sexual abuse.

11 percent or 2,500 cases did not amount to a criminal case, and those are the cases police are being told to do more on.

“The struggle that we deal with in the law enforcement agency side of things is, we don’t have the resources available to assist those families,” says Provo Police Department Sergeant Nisha King.

Some of those resources police say involve education, financial stability, food security, and therapy.

“Something like that, that is not criminal, so we don’t have funding, or the resources available to us to give that assistance to the families that are needed,” Sgt. King adds. “Ultimately, we will have to document everything and still send that documentation and information back to DCFS.”

“According to the law, [Child Protective Sevice] isn’t going to be investigating crimes where the perpetrator is outside of the home now,” Capt. Daley says.

Law Enforcement from Utah, Salt Lake, and Davis County all say DCFS will only investigate if a suspect is in the home where the abuse is alleged.

Most departments say they can’t hire an additional special victims unit detective to work the cases where that does not occur.

“With a limited number of investigators in the first place and a very large caseload, unfortunately, this adds work onto their load,” says Sgt. Cutler.

Before the law change on Oct. 6, police and Child Protective Service or CPS would interview a child together in a controlled environment. That’s changing too.

“I believe what it’s going to do is tax the agency by having to place two investigators on the same case,” says Capt. Daley.

“That’s where you’re going to see the biggest difference is that DCFS will probably not be there as you described, this is accurate, what your hearing, says DCFS Director Diane Moore.

DCFS director Diane Moore tells ABC4 the changes in the child abuse cases are about the perpetrator’s access to the child.

“And if they don’t have future access to the child at all, there is not really a role for child welfare because our role is to work with parents to help them keep their kids safe,” Moore says.

She goes on to say, “Approximately 2,500 cases, of all of those, were cases where we have no reason to believe that the parent isn’t doing exactly that. So it is not really appropriate for a child welfare intervention because the parents are protective of their own child. The child is not at any ongoing safety risk.”

ABC4 News Investigator Jason Nguyen asked why make the changes during the pandemic.

“This came out of COVID-19 budget changes and that has impacted everyone in government,” says Moore. “So because of budgetary issues they made a legislative change.”

Moore says DCFS saw some blowback from parents on some of the cases they were investigating.

“There are parents who are resentful of our interaction with them on those kinds of cases. Some parents feel it is not appropriate for child welfare to be coming up to their home when they are not the ones who are a threat to their own child,” says Moore. “So, it is a very small subset of cases that law enforcement is already being referred on and is already working where we are going to take an even further back seat role.”

Police officers say 2,500 additional cases is a lot to investigate given today’s political climate to defund the police.

Several departments off-camera tell ABC4 News they are going to have to depend on non-profit partnerships to get resources to families for the time being.

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