The District Attorney’s Office has officially announced the creation of a new Special Victims Unit (SVU) to serve sex crime victims in the 22nd Judicial District. The creation of this unit will enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the D.A.’s Office in holding sex offenders accountable, and achieving justice for survivors. While the new Special Victims Unit will address all sex crimes in the district (those perpetrated against both adult and child victims), the increase in forensic interviews with local child abuse victims underscores the growing need for this dedicated unit.
The number of forensic interviews conducted with child abuse victims at Children’s Advocacy Center - Hope House (an independent nonprofit serving child abuse and trafficking victims in St. Tammany and Washington Parishes) rose drastically over the past few years, from approximately 280 interviews in 2017 to more than 440 interviews in 2022.
Not only does the 22nd Judicial District have a large volume of sex crime cases, but they are becoming more complex and challenging. “Our office has been developing the Special Victims Unit since the end of 2022. Protecting our most vulnerable was always a chief priority for our former District Attorney, the late Warren Montgomery, and it will continue to be so,” said Interim District Attorney J. Collin Sims, who is also a longtime criminal prosecutor. “By allocating more time and resources to these complex sex crime cases – and dedicating specific, experienced staff members to handle them from inception to completion – we will be able to provide continuity to victims, and maintain and build upon our success in prosecuting child sex offenders in the 22nd Judicial District.”
The Special Victims Unit, which officially launched at the end of 2023, currently consists of 4 experienced staff members within the D.A.’s Office who are well versed in the complexities of prosecuting sex crimes. The Office plans to add another experienced sex crimes investigator to the unit. This investigator will be on call and available to consult with law enforcement partners at the outset of the initial complaint. The Office has also added a dedicated victim assistance coordinator to the unit. She is a former forensic interviewer who is bilingual and will be available to provide an array of services to the victims and their families.
“Sexual abuse creates trauma for victims, and sex crime cases require extensive training, dedication, and collaboration with many collaborative partners,” said Assistant District Attorney Ysonde Boland, Supervisor of the new SVU who has more than 30 years of experience with sex crime cases. “That’s why an experienced, dedicated unit within the D.A.’s Office is so important for addressing the growing issue of sex crimes in our community.” In addition to the D.A.’s Office, the Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT) tasked with handling these complex cases also includes law enforcement agencies; the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS); expert physicians from The Audrey Hepburn Care Center (under the umbrella of Children’s Hospital); a human trafficking specialist from the FBI; and forensic interviewers, therapists, and victim advocates from Children’s Advocacy Center - Hope House.
The team is specifically trained on responding to trauma in victims, and in forensic interviewing. Forensic interviews are extremely important pieces of evidence that help the D.A.’s Office provide justice for abuse victims. They must be conducted by trained professionals, and all questions must be asked in a neutral, non-leading manner in order for the interview to be admissible in court.
The Multi-Disciplinary Team meets in both parishes on a regular schedule. The D.A.’s Office conducts meetings on every case in which the child was interviewed at Hope House. They roundtable the cases, and each MDT partner is given an opportunity to provide input on the matter.
“This is truly a collaborative effort of many passionate individuals who love working these cases,” said Boland. “As I meet people in the community and am asked what I do for a living, they often ask me how I can stand to handle these types of cases. My response is always the same - How can I not? I love my job. I’m helping give these victims a voice. They know that someone is fighting for them.” For more information, please visit www.collinsimsda.org.