The Family Protection Division prosecutes crimes of physical and sexual domestic violence, physical and financial elder abuse, physical and sexual child abuse of children under 14 years of age, animal cruelty, Internet crimes involving children and child abduction. Early intervention is the primary goal of this division in the forms of holding perpetrators accountable with prosecution, protecting victims and the public with a combination of punishment and rehabilitation of offenders, and preventing crime altogether with community outreach, awareness and education. Chief Tracy Prior led the division in 2018 with the help of Assistant Chief Kurt Mechals.
In 2018, the Family Protection Division received and reviewed cases involving 9,242 defendants.
Number of Defendants Charged
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, increased perpetrator accountability, and superior victim support.
The District Attorney’s Office launched the Preventing Repeat Domestic Violence Initiative, which received funding in late 2017 from the United States Department of Justice. This initiative allows a team of prosecutors, investigators, crime analysts and researchers to work together to develop and evaluate data-driven interventions for high risk and repeat domestic violence offenders.
Additionally, the Family Protection Division continues to fine-tune the ongoing implementation of the Countywide Domestic Violence Strangulation Protocol, which was implemented in 2017. As noted in the 2017 Annual Report, this vital protocol raises criminal justice system awareness of the seriousness and dangers surrounding strangulation and promotes more effective investigation and prosecution of strangulation and suffocation cases. The District Attorney’s office has already seen a marked increase in quality strangulation case investigations and a spike in the issuance rate of these potentially lethal cases.
In 2018, the District Attorney’s Office continued its leadership in multiple “High Risk Teams” across the county. These teams were created in 2011 to collaboratively respond to the needs of individuals and their dependents experiencing intimate partner violence that are at high risk for lethality. These multi-disciplinary teams, led by the DA’s Office, consist of local police agencies, Department of Probation, SART nurses, the City Attorney’s Office and community based social service agencies that meet regularly to assist victims with safety planning, resource and support.
The Domestic Violence Stalking and Homicide Prevention Team continued its important efforts now it its third year since the team’s inception. The team consists of a prosecutor, District Attorney Investigator, Paralegal and Victim Advocate. They work 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 2018, the Elder Abuse Unit transitioned after renowned elder abuse expert and Unit Chief Paul Greenwood announced his retirement after 25 years with the District Attorney’s Office. Nevertheless, the unit continues its commitment to elder abuse victims as well as improving the overall quality of life of our county’s senior citizens under the leadership of Deputy District Attorney Scott Pirrello. On March 1, 2018, the District Attorney’s Office held the San Diego County Summit on Elder Abuse and Neglect, which brought together a wide variety of partners in the criminal justice field and the community. During the Summit, the “San Diego County Elder and Dependent Adult Blueprint” was launched. This groundbreaking blueprint is a comprehensive document that commits San Diego County to a coordinated community response to Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse by outlining best practices for law enforcement response, investigation, and prosecution of elder abuse cases.
Additionally, the District Attorney’s Office worked with our partners in San Diego County Health and Human Services as well as the private sector to create the Elder Protection Council, a new multi-disciplinary team of local, state and federal partners who work towards combatting all issues related to elder abuse within San Diego County.
The Elder Abuse Unit continued its commitment to community outreach and responded to the continued requests for outreach at events around the region and in facilities serving our seniors. These numerous speaking engagements allowed the unit to continue educating the public and specifically, our elder population to prevent them from becoming the next victim of elder abuse.
Child abuse, whether physical or sexual, is one of the most insidious of crimes. From a prosecution standpoint, proving child abuse is often complicated by the fact victims are often non-verbal or have limited communication skills. Babies cannot explain their bruises. Young children often do not report sexual abuse whether because they do not know it is wrong, they do not think adults will believe them over the abuser, they blame themselves, or because they do not want to upset their loved ones. This is precisely why the Family Protection Division is staffed with well-trained prosecutors who are versed in child abuse case dynamics, and possess the full range of skills needed to communicate with young children, when possible, and understand physical and medical evidence to find ways this type of evidence, often using it to speak for the children.
The District Attorney’s Office fights for children in a variety of ways. In addition to child abuse, the Family Protection Division assists in locating 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 enforced. The unit handles both domestic and international cases, helping to recover children taken from and wrongfully brought to San Diego County.
In 2018, the Child Abduction Unit opened 113 new cases and successfully recovered a total of 71 children, handling both domestic and international matters, including 17 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 dedicated in combating this exploitation. The joint effort by this group of dedicated professionals ensures those committing internet crimes against children are held accountable.
One example of the type of cases this task force prosecutes is People v. Andrew Desoto. In this case, a 30-year-old defendant directly messaged a 13-year-old victim via Facebook Messenger. Within a matter of days, the defendant asked to meet with the victim, engaged in sexual explicit conversations and sent sexually explicit photos of himself. The victim’s older brother discovered the conversations and told their mother, who reported it to law enforcement. The detective on the case assumed the victim’s online persona and arranged a meeting with the defendant. When the defendant showed up at the designated meeting spot, he was placed under arrest. The defendant ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in state prison.
In addition to investigating and prosecuting Internet predators and offenders, this task force actively participates in outreach to schools and parents, educating the community on Internet safety.
Animal Cruelty Unit
Recognizing the significant connection between animal abuse and other violent crimes, in May of 2018 the District Attorney’s Office created the Animal Cruelty Unit to provide a streamlined and consistent approach to animal abuse cases. This unit works closely with law enforcement and animal advocacy groups to investigate these crimes.
Cruelty to animals can be horrific and may also be an early indicator of a batterer increasing his or her power and control over a victim. It is estimated that 70 percent of people who are prosecuted for other crimes have a record of animal cruelty, with an especially strong link to those who commit child abuse and domestic violence.
Prevention and Community Awareness
The Family Protection Division is dedicated to crime prevention and increased community awareness. The District Attorney’s Office collaborated with the San Diego Domestic Violence Council and other partners to conduct trainings throughout the year on a variety of domestic violence topics. The District Attorney’s’ Office continued its community outreach programs in partnership with the County Department of Health and Human Services with grant funding from the California Office of Emergency Services. Under this grant, the programs serve victims of human trafficking, child abuse, elder and dependent adult abuse, domestic violence, sexual assaults and other crimes.
In October 2018, in conjunction with national Domestic Violence Awareness month, the District Attorney’s Office launched the Now is the Time domestic violence awareness campaign in partnership with the San Diego Domestic Violence Counsel. The campaign, funded by a grant from the California Office of Emergency Services, provided the community with a better understanding of how to recognize domestic violence and possible responses therefrom. More than 60 billboards were displayed across San Diego County directed at domestic violence victims, offenders and those witnesses of domestic violence. Additionally, wallet cards and postcards, in English and Spanish, were provided to community organizations for distribution.
The District Attorney’s Office also worked closely with the County Domestic Violence Fatality Review Team. This team tracks and reviews domestic violence related homicides in order to identify system improvements and make recommendations for needed programs, awareness efforts, training and policy updates in San Diego. The goal is to ultimately eradicate domestic violence related murders.
Finally in September of 2018, the District Attorney’s Office conducted outreach on mandated reporting targeted at school districts throughout San Diego County. This outreach helps ensure that some of our most vulnerable victims are being heard and supported by educating on how the reporting of these sensitive cases be done in an appropriate and timely manner.