WASHINGTON — For Dr. Howard Dubowitz and the young patients he works with, the wait for charges to be filed in cases of child sexual abuse can be frustratingly long.
“The uncertainty, the not knowing — just that is terribly stressful,” said Dubowitz, a pediatrician and professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who specializes in child sex abuse and neglect. “To the extent that these very difficult traumatic situations can be sorted out, the sooner the better.”
Advocates for young victims of sexual abuse have been grappling with evidence and court delays for years. And they say those delays put more children at risk.
“It’s very tough for a parent, for everyone involved actually, when these cases get drawn out,” Dubowitz said. “Sometimes it can be many months.”
The Charles County case of Carlos Bell exposed a monthslong backlog of digital evidence waiting to be processed at a state police lab.
In some cases, the sexual abuse of children only comes to light because videos and images are discovered on cellphones or computers. In many Maryland communities, those cases are sent to the Maryland State Police lab that examines digital evidence.
But the skyrocketing volume of cases and the enormous amount of data involved in many child exploitation cases have swamped the state police technical investigations unit, leading to a now 10-month wait to process that evidence. Similar labs run by Prince George’s and Montgomery county police departments also a report a backlog of cases up to three months.
“It’s really heartbreaking — a 10-month backlog,” said Sen. Susan Lee, a Bethesda Democrat who has fought to provide more money for the state police’s computer forensics lab to help them combat cyber predators.
Delays in processing evidence — along with a lack of resources — allow child predators to remain free to abuse more children, Lee said.
Such offenders typically have many victims and the risk to children is real, said Adam Rosenberg, a former prosecutor and executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center.
Bell, 35, of Waldorf, was free for months from the time police seized his cellphones in December up until his June 30 arrest on assault and child pornography charges. A teaching assistant and track coach in Charles County at the time, he was initially investigated for having inappropriate communications with a teenager.
Investigators don’t know whether Bell assaulted any other children while the evidence sat waiting to be analyzed for months at the state police lab. So far 10 victims have been identified.
“We lost six months of time we could have stopped him from sexually abusing and assaulting other kids,” Rosenberg said. “That’s really unfortunate. The quicker we can process this data, the quicker we can pluck these guys off the street and keep kids safe.“
Videos and images pulled from cellphones and computers can also help the forensic interviewers on Rosenberg’s staff by shaping their questions to see if the child can corroborate the digital evidence.
Just as importantly, faster investigations and prosecutions would help the children begin to heal sooner, he said.
Digital doesn’t mean faster
Police departments have struggled to keep up with the rapid pace of technological advances over the last decade. And with the advent of smartphones, children now have a direct portal to predators who chat with them through messaging apps, groom them and then sexually abuse them or exploit them.
The result is that more children are victims of sex crimes and police have more digital evidence than ever to comb through. One child pornography case can take weeks or months, police say.
“We are not keeping up with technology,” said Del. Edith Patterson, who represents Charles County.
The Bell case and a similar case involving a man who volunteered at a school in Prince George’s County has caught the attention of state lawmakers. And Patterson said the state must provide more funding not just to the state police but also to local police departments.
A state law known as Alicia’s Law will provide $2 million to support the state police lab that conducts the forensic examinations of digital evidence. Some of the funding is set to go to local departments that perform similar work and to local advocacy centers that work with the victims of abuse. The measure passed last year, but the money doesn’t start flowing until 2018.
“We know that the $2 million allocated will not be enough to address this,” Patterson said.
Lee sponsored Alicia’s Law because she was outraged that only a small percentage of all child exploitation cases end up in the hands of police. And she wanted to provide state police with more training and updated equipment.
She plans to keep fighting for more funding next session.
“We need to give angels wings so they can go out and rescue children.” Lee said of police.
WTOP’s Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.
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