Justice for Children

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

In my former lives as an Assistant DA and DA, I spent the largest part of my 25-year career prosecuting Sensitive Crimes cases. That experience included countless child abuse and neglect cases. In that work, I saw firsthand how child abuse and neglect often do irreparable harm to children and families. Worse, the fallout from that abuse and neglect often is passed from generation to generation. We have no higher responsibility in government than to protect our children.


Today, I was proud to stand with Senator Rob Cowles, Representatives Tranel, Macco, Murtha, and Heaton; and legislative leaders who sponsored the “Justice for Children” legislation,  addressing a need to change the way abuse and neglect of children is handled in the criminal justice system.


It is time for us to recognize the need to provide stronger tools to address these crimes. The legislation and resources we announced today will help Wisconsin to do the best it can to protect our children. 

Here are some of the components of the proposed legislation:



For many years, Wisconsin law has given prosecutors the ability to charge repeated acts of sexual assault of a child as a single continuing offense. That tool has been critical to our success in cases involving ongoing, repetitive sexual abuse. Children often are not able to identify the specific date on which acts of sexual abuse were committed against them. This package of legislation provides an important tool to prosecutors that will enable them to address this challenge.


This is just as true with acts of physical abuse and neglect as it is with sexual abuse. However, under current law, prosecutors do not have the ability to charge repeated acts of physical abuse and neglect as repeated acts. Yet, physical abuse and neglect can be every bit as damaging to a child as sexual abuse. It is long overdue for Wisconsin to give prosecutors the ability to charge long-term physical abuse and neglect as an ongoing course of conduct so that we can achieve justice for these child victims and prevent offenders from committing future crimes against children.



The criminal justice system works best for victims when there’s a collaborative approach that brings together a multi-disciplinary team made up of prosecutors, law enforcement, victim advocates, and social services. Under current law, mandatory reporters must report sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect of a child to the county social service agency. Only as to sexual abuse of a child, however, are social service agencies required to share the report with law enforcement. Wisconsin law does not require that law enforcement be notified when physical abuse or neglect of a child is suspected.


Social services and law enforcement have complementary, but not always identical interests relative to child abuse and neglect. Law enforcement has tools available to it, such as subpoenas and search warrants that are not typically available to social services agencies working alone.It makes sense that the two systems both work together to investigate child abuse and neglect. It will be a force multiplier in our effort to keep our children safe. In Waukesha County where I was a prosecutor, we began conducting collaborative investigations between law enforcement and social services years ago, and I saw firsthand the benefits of this multi-disciplinary approach.



Current Wisconsin law requires that the State prove that a person who neglected a child did so intentionally. This is an oxymoron. By its nature, neglect is not intentional. This proposed legislation would remedy this confusion in our law. This proposed legislation also creates graduated penalties for varying degrees of child neglect. Under current law, a prosecutor has only two options when addressing allegations of child neglect:  1. Charge a misdemeanor if the child does not die from the neglect; and 2. Charge a felony if the child dies as a result of the neglect. This bill provides graduated penalties for neglect based upon the severity of the injury to the child. Thus, more severe neglect can be punished more severely than the current misdemeanor offense.



When police conduct an investigation, the suspect has the right to have an attorney represent them. In fact, if they are in custody, police must tell the suspect that they have that right before they may interview the suspect about the alleged crime. Further, if the suspect cannot afford an attorney, they are told they will get one for free.

Why would we not give a victim who is being interviewed about a crime they did not want committed against them the right to have an advocate present to help them? Further, unlike the attorney representing a suspect as part of an adversarial process, the presence of a trained victim advocate can actually assist law enforcement in doing its job.



These four victim-centered pieces of legislation will enable us to give children the resources they need to navigate the criminal justice system and begin the long process of healing. These tools will enable us to do the very best we can to keep our children safe.


Jill Karofsky, Director of our Office of Crime Victim Services, has worked tirelessly with legislators and other victim advocates to develop this comprehensive solution to some of society’s worst problems. I am confident the “Justice for Children” package of laws will be a great asset to prosecutors statewide and hold offenders more accountable than current law allows. State prosecutors who specialize in child abuse and neglect prosecutions, as well as representatives from partner organizations like the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault (WCASA) and Children's Hospital of Wisconsin also have provided critical assistance in developing these bills. Administrator Karofsky was a front line prosecutor in the Dane County DAs Office for two decades and prosecuted countless child abuse and neglect cases. Her leadership led to her appointment as a Deputy DA and then to her current position at DOJ where she leads our fantastic team of crime victim service providers statewide.



I am also excited to share an additional step that the Department of Justice is taking to better serve children in our state. The Wisconsin Department of Justice is creating the position of Child Abuse Resource Prosecutor. No prosecutor will see a more difficult case than an abusive head trauma case. We used to use the term “shaken baby syndrome,” but the brain injuries are much more complex than that term describes, and in the medical, child protection and prosecution communities, we now instead use the term “abusive head trauma” which describes an array of abuse that can result in severe lifelong disabilities and even death to the child.

Abusive head trauma and other serious child abuse cases have become increasingly complex and require county DAs to become experts in medical terminology and concepts. They must invest countless hours and resources to prepare to present the testimony of prosecution medical experts and to cross examine defense medical experts. The medical evidence varies so widely that it is difficult for prosecutors in our DAs offices to develop the expertise they need to successfully prosecute these cases and bring justice for victims and their families.


This resource prosecutor will provide our county DAs with everything from resources and advice when making charging decisions, to assisting with trial preparation, to second-chairing trials and even taking on primary responsibility at trial in serious child abuse cases statewide. This position will not require any new resources at DOJ. Rather, we are re-tasking a current Assistant AG position to take on this priority. We have had great success with similar subject matter-specific prosecutors, such as our designated violence against women and traffic safety prosecutors, and we are excited to announce this additional designated resource for child abuse prosecutors statewide. Protecting our children is the most important thing we do.