Blue ribbons hang from the branches of a tree outside of the Oregon State Capitol, representing victims of child abuse or neglect in Oregon on Thursday, April 1, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem area law enforcement agencies are preparing for an influx of children reporting abuse as schools reopen this fall, and have added more investigators to help them respond.

The county team required under state law to investigate and assesses child abuse now meets daily to review recent, severe child abuse and neglect investigations, having previously met weekly, officials said at a press conference Tuesday.

Marion County Deputy District Attorney Brendan Murphy said the new system allows officers and Oregon Department of Human Services workers to directly seek advice from experts on specific forms of abuse to better inform investigations.

George Burke, deputy chief for the Salem Police Department, said four investigators now focus on child physical and sexual abuse, as well as some domestic violence cases, while two others focus on adult sexual abuse cases. Previously, four investigators covered all forms of abuse.

The team pushed to implement the changes by the time children returned to school this fall, preparing for a potential rise in children disclosing abuse that occurred in isolation during the pandemic.

“The pandemic was like pouring jet fuel on a fire, because children were isolated at home, many of them with their abusers,” said Alison Kelley, chief executive officer for Liberty House, Marion and Polk County’s child advocacy center.

The changes came six months after the Salem-Keizer School District ended its school resource officer program, which had stationed 11 officers in local schools. The district retained a newer contract with the Keizer Police Department for a police officer paid to help with risk assessments and responding to threats against students and schools. 

School resource officers spent about 40% of their time on child abuse investigations. They were also charged with investigating threats to schools, mentoring students and a variety of other tasks, leaving no single person dedicated to investigating child abuse.

The removal of the school resource officer program “really gave us the opportunity to focus our efforts where they need to be, which is really dedicating some resources into child abuse on the investigative side,” Burke said. “Having the (officers) in the schools and having those points, relationships was good, but I think it took (officers) out of what it is that (officers) were in the schools to do.”

Now, child abuse investigators will be focused in their work and can more easily seek advice.

“What we're trying to create is a team of people who are experts, who can provide appropriate advice to investigators," Murphy said.

The team includes detectives from the Salem Police Department, Keizer Police Department and Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Marion County child abuse prosecutors, DHS child welfare workers and Liberty House staff.

“We used to see, as investigators, we’d make phone calls waiting to catch up with the right person trying to get coordinated so that we could do an effective investigation,” he said. “Now, meeting daily, we have that team immediately available for any investigator in the county.”

Kelley said the team began working on potential changes to its operations 2017.

Around six months ago, “We finally said, ‘We absolutely, 100% need to commit to this. This is no longer once-a-week kind of deal. We need to do this every day. We need to be available all the time,’” Burke said. “The last thing we want to do is have a patrol officer way in over their head and involved in an investigation that really involves the expertise of somebody who's been through the training and can do the forensic interviews.”

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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