Friday, April 9, 2021

Bill Diamond: Local heroes protect Maine’s children from abuse

By Senator Bill Diamond

It’s not something most people want to think about, and it’s easy to understand why. But the fact is, children in Maine – just like children everywhere else – are sexually exploited for the financial profit of adults every day. This includes the production, buying, selling and swapping of child sexual abuse materials online. Luckily, in Maine, we have a team of dedicated professionals who do all they can to put these perpetrators away: the Computer Crimes Unit of the Maine State Police, also known as the CCU. Unfortunately, the CCU is understaffed and struggling to keep up with a growing caseload. That’s why I’m sponsoring a bill this year to add more positions to the CCU to help combat some of the most heinous crimes we see in our society.

The CCU is a multi-jurisdictional police entity that assists other law enforcement agencies and prosecutors with putting these perpetrators away. In many instances, cases come to the CCU as the result of referrals from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Investigators and computer forensic analysts in the CCU then work side-by-side to identify the producers, sellers, buyers and users of these materials and build cases against them. As technology evolves and becomes more sophisticated, so do the perpetrators who rely on technology to commit their crimes. In the past four years, the number of case referrals and tips the CCU receives has nearly tripled.

This has left the CCU with a far bigger workload than current staffing levels can accommodate. While investigators can typically conduct about 20 thorough investigations a year, each of the CCU’s four investigators currently has up to 100 cases. Because there aren’t enough forensic analysts and investigators to review and examine the evidence they collect, it remains sitting on a shelf in a closet 20 feet from a vacant CCU desk. The result is that perpetrators remain free and are able to abuse more children.

The bill I’ve introduced will add one or more positions to the CCU to help combat this backlog. The Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is currently working on the bill to determine how many positions to recommend, and whether those positions should be for investigators or forensic analysts. Whatever the committee decides, the result will be a recommendation to the Legislature that we fund at least one additional CCU position. This is necessary to protect our kids, and I hope my colleagues in the House and Senate will see the value in funding this priority.

As you can imagine, working on these cases and viewing these images takes a significant toll on CCU workers. I began working with the CCU in 2004, when I served as senate chair of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. I’ve had the honor of visiting the CCU in the years since, and I can tell you that those visits have been some of the most impressionable moments of my entire life. I always encourage my colleagues in the Legislature to tour the CCU and learn more about their work. CCU workers are local heroes, and their work is often unrecognized and underappreciated. This includes the computer analysts in the CCU, who are civilians. Another bill of mine would include these workers in the state’s 1998 Special Retirement Plan, which currently includes fire marshals, forest rangers and many others who serve our state. This would allow these CCU workers to retire at age 55 with 10 years of creditable service.

Protecting Maine’s children from abuse of all forms has been a priority for me for the past two decades. That’s why I’ve also introduced a bill that would take the Office of Family and Child Services out from under the Department of Health and Human Services and make it its own department. This would dedicate more resources toward issues of child welfare, early childhood programs and behavioral health services for children. Our state has seen too many tragedies over the past few decades. It’s well past time we make a real investment in supporting and protecting our most vulnerable children, and I believe this is a critical step in the right direction. You’ll hear more from me about this in the coming months.

I hope I’ve been able to provide you with some information you didn’t have before about the CCU and the reality of child abuse in our state. We have an opportunity to improve our efforts to protect our children in Maine by giving the CCU some of the obvious tools they need to prevent predators from continuing to abuse children. If you want to discuss this issue, or if you have any other questions or concerns we can work on together, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at 287-1515 or <

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