A new Sheriff's Department team of child-abuse investigators that was to be at work Jan. 1 still does not exist--the victim of red tape and confusion deep within the county bureaucracy.
San Diego County supervisors approved the 12-member team nine months ago and scheduled it to start work at the beginning of this year.
But county cars for the unit's 10 plainclothes investigators have yet to arrive. Until they do, child-abuse cases will continue to be probed through the same cumbersome and fragmented approach that supervisors agreed needed reform last year, officials say.
In a quarterly report made public this week, Sheriff John Duffy blamed the delay on the county Purchasing Department, which he said took too long to order the cars and other equipment needed for the unit.
Since Duffy blamed the county buyers, however, that department and other top county officials have countered that the delay was not the fault of one person or department but was instead the product of a string of decisions, changes and unavoidable circumstances.
The issue has caught the attention of Supervisor Susan Golding, who asked Norman Hickey, the county's top administrator, to get to the bottom of it.
"We voted for this unit in July, and even if we funded it for January, it's going to be the end of March soon, and I don't see us being on line in the near future," Golding said. "That's just plain too long to get it operational."
Whoever is at fault, the people in the field who investigate child-abuse cases say the public, and children, are suffering.
Under the current system, eight Sheriff's Department substations each have a detective assigned to investigate child abuse. But in five of those stations--all but Vista, Santee and Lemon Grove--those investigators may be pulled off for other assignments, and in each case they answer to sergeants who are generalists with no special knowledge in the sensitive and stressful field of child abuse.
"Detective sergeants are very good at managing robbery, burglary, rape caseloads, but they aren't real familiar with the particular needs of child-abuse investigators," said Sgt. Bill Southwell, who has been planning the children's unit since August and will be one of its supervisors when it is finally formed.
Sgt. Ron Cottingham added: "In the substations, you're with 12 other detectives who are working robbery, burglary, fencing. All the supervisor wants to know about his child-abuse investigator is if he's doing an adequate job and keeping people off his (the sergeant's) back. You just don't get the internal support you can get from being housed with other people doing the same thing you're doing."
With the investigators spread out around the county, Cottingham said, there is more risk of duplication or--worse yet--of cases falling through the cracks. After the unit gets going, five of the experienced investigators and five newcomers will be teamed in one Santee office, under one supervisor.
That specialization is something that all elements of the county involved with child abuse have recommended. Melinda Lasater, chief deputy district attorney for the Juvenile Division, said the change should make the handling of children's cases more efficient.
Lasater said the dual systems involved in children's cases--the criminal prosecution of suspected abusers and the question of whether abused children should be removed from their families' homes--require an expertise not possessed by every sheriff's investigator.
"When you've got people doing it who don't understand the system, things get lost," she said. "We will definitely be more successful in protecting the children and obtaining criminal prosecutions."
With that in mind, Duffy in July asked for, and received, money to hire 10 deputies and two sergeants for the new unit. He also obtained permission to buy 25 cars for the juvenile services division, about a dozen of which would be used for the child-abuse unit.
The money for the four-door sedans was transferred in late August to the county's General Services Department, which manages the county fleet. There, the funds were swallowed up by the "process"--a faceless collection of committees, departments and channels--from which the money did not emerge until Dec. 12.
According to Donald Madison, deputy director of General Services, a countywide committee of representatives from each department decided that it would be more cost-effective to order the sheriff's cars in combination with more than 300 other county vehicles, including 70 cars for sheriff's detectives that are identical to those needed for the child-abuse investigators.
But while the money for the juvenile services division's 25 cars was available immediately out of general county funds, the money for the other vehicles was to be raised as part of a sale of bonds by a special county financing agency. That takes time.