In February, Attorney General Tim Fox announced that Traci Shinabarger has been hired to develop and implement the State’s new Child and Family Ombudsman Program. The program was created when the 2013 Legislature passed House Bill 76, which directed the Montana Department of Justice to establish the Child and Family Ombudsman Office.Read More »
The children Ole Olson works with are people who almost never have a voice.
Olson, 34, is a special prosecutor in the Montana Department of Justice’s Children’s Justice Center. He focuses on child victims of sexual abuse, including many children who have been the subject of Internet-shared child pornography.
“Kids are the most innocent and defenseless portion of our society” said Olson. The children he sees are brave: They sit in a witness chair and tell their story to a judge and jury. They put their faith in adults when they first report abuse, even when their own experiences may have taught these children not to trust. They work with investigators and interviewers, often talking about difficult things they may not have the words for.
The Children’s Justice Center was created in 2009 to make every part of that process better for children, delivering justice quicker and more effectively, while paying special attention to Internet-facilitated crimes against children.
The center has many parts. It includes investigators at the Division of Criminal Investigations (DCI), another arm of the Montana Department of Justice. Olson was hired in the spring of 2010 along with a DCI Internet investigator who specializes in following the flow of child pornography on the Internet and creating a case against perpetrators in Montana.
“He investigates it and I prosecute it,” Olson said.
Both are part of the Sexual Predator Enforcement Unit in the Children’s Justice Center. The new unit includes state-level investigators and state-level training for local law enforcement officers on finding criminals who use the Internet to target or victimize children and convicting them when they are found.
Since its inception, Olson and others in the unit have launched 30 investigations into Internet-facilitated crimes against children, prosecutions that may not have occurred without state-level expertise and manpower. One of those is a case Olson said he’ll never forget: A man now serving a 25-year prison sentence for trafficking child pornography in Ravalli and Gallatin counties.
Olson also handles sexual abuse cases unrelated to the Internet. Much of the information he needs to convict a child sexual abuser comes from interviews forensic examination of the child and initial and follow-up interviews with the child victim. How authorities respond in those first moments with the child is very important.
The Montana Child Sexual Abuse Response Team (MCSART) is another element of the center. That team, headquartered at DCI, works with communities around Montana to bring first-rate training to the professionals who respond to a report of child sexual abuse: the police and sheriff’s officers, social workers and therapists. Those people are part of a “multi-disciplinary team.” MCSART works to build those teams around Montana and offers continuing training so when a child sexual assault victim makes a report, the community is ready to respond.
Many Montana communities have also built special facilities to handle all the interviews and exams in one roof. These child-oriented spaces are called “child advocacy centers.” Hamilton’s center is in a white clapboard house on a residential street. Helena’s is a series of offices in a larger building. While the specifics vary, each center is the same in that they are colorful, homey and designed with a child’s emotional and physical needs in mind.
Since the center formed, the number of trained multi-disciplinary teams has more than tripled, from five to 18. The number of child advocacy centers has doubled from five to 10, with three certified by the National Children’s Alliance, the gold standard accrediting agency in the industry.
MCSART also supplies state-of-the-art equipment to local teams and child advocacy centers to best capture interviews and evidence.
These efforts are not only gentler on the child; they result in a higher conviction rate.
In the last year, Olson worked on a case against a man in a small Montana town who had many young victims. The man got a 15-year sentence, Olson said, a lengthy term owing in part to the excellent cooperation with the victims and the child-oriented approach to the case from the beginning.
The center also includes a new, state-level rapid-response team that can deploy to help local law enforcement when a child is reported abducted. Finally, the center works with local law enforcement to ensure that offenders required by law to register with the state’s Sexual and Violent Offender Registry are accounted for. State law requires that all designated sexual and violent offenders be cataloged in a state-wide, public registry. The Montana Department of Justice built, maintains and improves the registry; however, local law enforcement agencies are responsible for reporting the address information of offenders to the Justice Department. The Children’s Justice Center has two compliance officers working with local agencies to ensure the registry is up-to-date and that non-compliant offenders are prosecuted.
Olson, a Helena native and father of three, said his job and the Children’s Justice Center is part of a longstanding interest of his in public service.
“It’s a privilege to go to work every day in public service, protecting Montana’s kids and holding offenders accountable,” he said.
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Every month, tens of thousands of people search Montana’s database of registered sexual or violent offenders. In seconds, they find names, addresses, photos – even maps to homes – of convicts required by law to register with local law enforcement under Montana’s Sexual or Violent Offender Registration Act.
To Montana’s citizens, the registry website just works. But to Terri P., a computer programmer analyst at the Montana Department of Justice, the system works because she wrote computer code making it work.
Terri, 47, is the woman behind the registry.
“I hate to admit it,” she said. “But even when I’m not writing (computer) code, I’m thinking about code.”
The Montana Legislature first created a sexual offender registry in 1989. Back then, the database was housed in the Montana Department of Corrections. The law did not require that any of the information be released to the public.
By the time Terri joined the Montana Department of Justice in 2003, the registry had expanded to include violent offenders, the information in the registry was public and DOJ had built a website to allow anyone to access the information in seconds.
Terri’s work is on the back end: She maintains the database itself and makes sure that when someone requests information through the website, they actually get the information they’re looking for.
She also helped write the code that created the mapping feature of the site in 2009.
Lawmakers and the Montana Justice Department also make continual improvements to the registry and Terri makes all of those ideas reality.
The registry is one of several large computer databases DOJ builds and maintains. The agency also tracks criminal histories, vehicle registration, driver’s licenses and citizen complaints against businesses, to name a few. All of those systems are custom-built for Montana and maintained by the Justice Information Technology Service Division, where Terri works.
Improving and maintaining those systems is a fun, daily challenge for a programmer, Terri said. You get a lot of people working in that environment together, as the Justice Department’s IT department has, and it makes for stimulating work.
“You get to do a lot of cool stuff,” she said. “There’s always something new. I’m the kind of person who likes a challenge and this is always a challenge.”
Computer code makes its own kind of beauty, she said. It can be elegant and inventive.
“I guess beauty is in the eye of beholder,” she said, laughing.
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Montana Highway Patrol Tamra Winchell, 29, decided in fifth grade she wanted to be in law enforcement.
“My D.A.R.E. officer really inspired me,” the Great Falls native said. “I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
She put herself through the Montana Law Enforcement Academy when she was 21, using the credits to finish her degree at the University of Great Falls. Winchell got her first job in her hometown police department before moving to the Montana Highway Patrol, stationed in the Bitterroot Valley.
She has been with the force since 2005.
“My favorite thing? I love being able to interact with the public, being able to meet different people, to know that I’m there to help others and guide them away from being victims,” Winchell said.
The Montana Highway Patrol began in 1935 with just 24 troopers – back when Montana had only 11 traffic laws on the books. A division of the Montana Department of Justice, the patrol today is a sophisticated, modern statewide law enforcement agency. Troopers uphold the state’s driving laws, investigate crashes and, when required, other crimes, respond to vehicle accidents and are often the first on the scene of crash.
The values behind the patrol, however, are unchanged from the beginning, said Col. Mike Tooley, head of the division.
“Its service, integrity and respect,” he said. “There’s a meaning behind each of those words. We’re out here to serve the citizens of Montana. You’re expected to be honest in your words and deeds. Respect goes into how you treat people and how you perform your duties.”
Like Winchell, Tooley said his favorite part of the Patrol is being part of a group that serves others.
“We are all dedicated to taking care of other people,” he said. “That’s what I think we all got into this business for.”
The patrol began as a response to Montana’s high highway fatality rate. Montana had one of the highest roadway death rates in the nation in 1934, a grim standing that prompted citizens and lawmakers to respond. The Patrol responded again in 2008 when Montana had one the highest alcohol-related highway death rates in the nation.
One of the many Montanans killed by drunken drivers that year was Trooper Mike Haynes, a father of two young children in the Flathead Valley who was killed when his patrol car was hit by a man driving under the influence. His widow, Tawney Haynes, became a vocal supporter of Montana’s new 24/7 Sobriety Program, spearheaded by Attorney General Steve Bullock. The program requires drivers facing their second DUI arrest or conviction to submit to twice daily breath tests or to wear an anklet that monitors the alcohol in their bodies.
Winchell herself was hit by a drunken driving just months after Haynes’ death.
“You know it’s the chance you take out here,” she said. “I was knocked unconscious. I count my blessings I had my seatbelt on.”
Winchell was in her cruiser, parked off the road, finishing up on-the-scene work after responding to a highway crash. An intoxicated driver hit her going 60 miles-per-hour.
The experience was profound, she said.
“It helps me empathize with crash victims. I have a better understanding because I’ve been there myself,” she said.
And she is a strong supporter of the 24/7 Sobriety Program.
“I count my blessings every day,” Winchell said.
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