The Family Protection Division prosecutes crimes of murder, domestic violence, stalking, crimes against children, and elder abuse. The division strongly supports victims of crime and works closely with criminal justice agencies and community partners. In 2016, the division was led by Chief Tracy Prior and Assistant Chief Kurt Mechals. During this time, the Family Protection Division received 8,208 cases for review. It prosecuted 2,210 domestic violence cases, of which 725 were felonies and 1,485 were misdemeanors. In addition, there were 494 child abuse cases and 20 Internet crimes against children cases prosecuted along with charges filed in 371 elder abuse and 24 assisted living facility cases received by our office for review.
Today’s misdemeanor can be tomorrow’s homicide. That’s why the District Attorney’s Office has specially-trained Deputy District Attorneys across the county, handling felony and misdemeanor domestic violence cases from the earliest stages. Having the same prosecutor handle domestic violence cases from beginning to end ensures better courtroom efficiency, better perpetrator accountability, and increased victim safety.
In 2016, the District Attorney’s Office continued its leadership in multiple “High Risk Teams” across the county. These teams were created in 2011 to improve community response and victim support in the most dangerous situations. The multi-disciplinary teams, led by the DA’s Office, consists of various local police agencies and non-governmental groups who meet regularly to connect victims with support.
Additionally, the District Attorney’s Office, along with a county wide multi-disciplinary team including law enforcement, medical professionals and the City Attorney’s Office, started developing a domestic violence strangulation protocol. Over the past eight months, efforts have been made to address how to effectively investigate strangulation cases, as well as how to appropriately focus efforts and resources on such serious and life threatening cases. This important protocol is expected to be implemented in San Diego County in early 2017.
The Domestic Violence Stalking and Homicide Prevention Team was also implemented in 2016. Led by Deputy District Attorney Amy Colby, this team consists of a prosecutor, District Attorney Investigator, Paralegal and Victim Advocate. The team works with law enforcement to build stalking cases and work with victims to provide resources and safety planning. The team meets bi-monthly and discusses cases suited for stalking investigation and focused prosecutorial efforts.
In 2016, the Elder Abuse Unit continued to cement its working relationship with Community Care Licensing and the Attorney General’s Office in reviewing elder abuse referrals for incidents occurring in residential care facilities for the elderly on an alternate monthly basis. The unit also responded to numerous requests for speaking at events around the region to continue educating the public about elder abuse. In March, Deputy District Attorney Paul Greenwood spoke at the House of Commons in the United Kingdom about the San Diego model for prosecuting elder abuse. Then, in October, he made a presentation to the Elder Justice Coordinating Council in Washington, D.C.
On other fronts, Deputy District Attorney Scott Pirrello drafted elder abuse legislation, which has now been incorporated as Penal Code section 368[l]. It gives elder abuse victims up to ten years of protection with a court imposed protective order. Finally, the Elder Abuse unit has been dealing more and more with the intersection of criminal justice and mental health systems. Efforts are underway to find better and effective alternatives to mentally ill defendants.
The District Attorney’s Office fights for children in many ways. One way is to locate children who have been abducted by a parent. The District Attorney’s Child Abduction Unit finds and recovers children who go missing as a result of a parental abduction, and helps ensure that child custody court orders are honored. The unit handles both domestic and international cases, helping to recover children taken from and wrongfully brought to San Diego County.
2016 was a busy year for the Child Abduction Unit; they opened 75 new cases and successfully recovered 33 children. The unit handled both domestic and international matters, including 11 cases subject to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
Internet Crimes Against Children
The District Attorney’s Office is committed to aggressively prosecuting cases of child exploitation on the Internet. Several Deputy District Attorneys are assigned to the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, a dedicated group of local, state, and federal law-enforcement officers and prosecutors. The joint effort by this group of dedicated professionals ensures defendants are held accountable.
In 2016, the District Attorney’s office prosecuted serious offenders who also faced additional charges from the United States Attorney’s Office. In People v. Lutts, for example, the defendant was a pediatric nurse who sexually abused a one-year-old patient and the defendant’s two-month old foster child. The defendant would film and photograph the molestations and send the child pornography to others throughout the country. Lutts is now serving 15 years-to-life on the District Attorney’s prosecution and an additional 80-year sentence on the federal case. Also, in the People v. Jonathan and Jennifer Gastelum, the joint approach to prosecuting these defendants in state and federal criminal courts earned them a 40-to-life sentence and 40-year sentence, respectively. These co-defendants repeatedly molested the female defendant’s four and six-year-old daughters. They, too, would film and photograph the molestations.
In addition to investigating and prosecuting Internet predators and offenders, the task force actively participates in outreach to schools and parents to educate the community on Internet safety.
Prevention and Community Awareness
The Family Protection Division is dedicated to crime prevention and increasing community awareness. In 2016, the Family Protection Division collaborated with the Domestic Violence Council and the former San Diego Chargers to launch a “Teen Relationship Violence” campaign. The District Attorney’s Office sponsored over 1,500 commercials, in English and Spanish, aimed at educating the public about warning signs for teens who may be in abusive relationships. We participated in news radio and television shows with other community partners to get the message out to teens that relationships should not be about fear.
Other partnerships include: Kathy’s Legacy – a nonprofit agency dedicated to serving victims, to develop a program in which resources are provided to children who are left alone due to domestic violence murder; and the Commission on the Status of Women and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, in an effort to develop an education booklet about red flags and warning signs for domestic violence within relationships. The booklets will be distributed to the community in English and Spanish.
Under the leadership of Terra Marroquin, the District Attorney’s Domestic Violence Prevention Specialist, the Family Protection Division coordinated “DV Essentials” training courses for 200 frontline professionals. The basic training on domestic violence screening and response practices was for County staff and professionals from community-based organizations in a variety of disciplines.
Finally, the division developed and distributed the countywide Domestic Violence Resource Guides in English and Spanish. These are posted to the Domestic Violence Council and District Attorney websites, and used by Domestic Violence and law enforcement agencies.