Bennington County Targets Sexual Assaults and Domestic ViolenceBy Susan Bush
12:00AM / Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Bennington, Vt. - Bennington County law enforcement and social service agencies are seeking a $96,000 share of an available $340,000 state grant fund pool to launch a special investigative unit. The unit would be dedicated to investigating sexual crimes committed against children and adults, domestic violence situations, child abuse, and crimes against those with physical or mental disabilities.
|Bennington County State's Attorney William Wright|
If awarded the Office of State's Attorney William Wright would oversee the funds.
Some Really Good Work
Announcement of the grant application came during an 11:30 a.m. press conference at the state Department of Children and Families offices. Wright was accompanied by state Sen. Richard Sears, town police Chief Robert Gauthier, Lori Vadikin, a child outpatient provider at the recently created Child Advocate Center and Caroline Baca, a CAC case manager.
Vermont state Sen. Richard Sears
"Some really good work took place [during the past legislative session] toward setting up these units [statewide]," Sears said.
Space to house a special investigative unit would be created at the basement level of the Bennington County courthouse, Wright said.
Renovation work includes removing prisoner space and designing office space. he said.
"We have to pull some cells out of there and create offices," he said. "We'll find out who's good with a hammer."
Units To be In Place By 2009
The $340,000 grant pool was built into the state's Fiscal Year 2007 budget by state legislators. The funds will be awarded to existing special investigative units and those seeking to begin the units.
Each region of the state must have a special investigative unit focused on sexual crimes and domestic violence in place by 2009, according to a "Sexual Violence Prevention Act" signed into law earlier this year by Gov. James Douglas.
A SIU is expected to build on sexual assault investigative procedures and strategies already in place and provide a central arena for investigations. The units are designed to serve at a county or regional level, and the towns of Manchester and Winhall have agreed to be part of a Bennington County unit, should the funding be acquired, Wright said.
Sexual assault and domestic violence reports are currently investigated and involve a team approach , Wright said. A special investigative unit would maintain a core group focused on the matters and "ready to roll" almost immediately upon receiving a complaint, he said.
Bennington Police Chief Richard Gauthier
Creating special units also means creating a clear structure and protocol that benefits victims and community alike, Gauthier said.
A More Cohesive Package
Service providers will be available to help victims cope with emotional issues, something that is especially important when crimes are committed against children. In most cases, sexual assaults against children are committed by someone known to the child. In some cases, the abuser is a relative, and the emotional toll on a child can be extreme, Sears noted.
"All this will lead to a more cohesive package," said Wright.
About 70 percent of sexual assault cases that involve children are resolved without a trial and that is a benefit for the victim, said Wright.
Wright, Gauthier and Sears noted that Bennington County is impacted by a significant number of sexual assaults, including sexual assaults against children. Those numbers could climb higher with a special unit in place, Sears said, but added that an increase in investigations would be a positive for communities and individuals who may have been victimized.
Over time, an investigative unit focused exclusively on sexual crimes and domestic violence is likely to lead to a decreased incidence of those acts, said Gauthier and Wright.
Each unit will be comprised of local and state police officers, child advocates, family or children's services centers, social services providers, members of various sheriff's departments, and other appropriate individuals or entities.
Task Force Launched
An anti-violence partnership at the University of Vermont has established a task force to review and identify sexual violence prevention programs at state schools, non-profit agencies and government entities. Task force members include representatives from the state Department of Education, Department of Health,Department of Children and Families, the judiciary, an organization which works with youthful sex offenders, child abuse prevention groups,the state's Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Center For Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Abuse, and Children's Alliance.
A Special Investigative Unit Grants Board administers the grant funds.
Board members are the State's Attorney, the state Secretary of Administration, the Executive Director of the Department of State's Attorneys, the Executive Director of the Center for Crime Victim Services, and the Executive Director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.
Caroline Baca of the Children's Advocacy Center
According to the legislation, units that include participation from municipal public safety departments, DCF offices and regional communities will be given preference for the grant revenues.
Sears said he believes the county has a good chance of receiving grant revenues.
Wright said that establishing a unit would create a very powerful resource in the battle against sexual assaults and domestic violence.
"We're well situated here in Bennington," he said. "This would be a natural bridge; we could expand what we are already doing, add some adult services."
Vadikin said a special investigative unit would set a new standard for investigations.
"It's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for us," she said.