Citizens' Police Academy, Week 8: The Youth Bureau

Sgt. Sereniti Dobson presents on the police's Youth Bureau during the eighth week of the Westport, Conn. Citizens' Police Academy on Oct. 27, 2016.
Sgt. Sereniti Dobson presents on the police's Youth Bureau during the eighth week of the Westport, Conn. Citizens' Police Academy on Oct. 27, 2016.Laura Weiss / Hearst Connecticut Media

Editor’s note: This is the eighth of a nine-part series in which Westport News reporter Laura Weiss takes part in the town’s Citizens’ Police Academy. Weiss shares her experiences with readers.

WESTPORT — Class focused on kids and the police last Thursday during the Citizens’ Academy’s eighth week, taking a look at the protocol for juveniles as both criminals and victims.

Sgt. Sereniti Dobson and the Westport Police Youth Bureau investigate incidents including crimes against children, child pornography, sexual and physical child abuse and bullying and harassment.

The unit deals with all juvenile matters, and Dobson serves as liaison for all seven public schools in town. Unlike many neighboring towns, Dobson told the class, Westport does not have school resource officers stationed in each school.

One element that stood out were the resources at hand for police to investigate child pornography possession leads, including software that monitors its trade, the Weston-based Technical Investigations Unit and the state’s police dog, Selma. Officers take Selma along with all child pornography search warrants because she is trained to detect technology, such as a small hidden flash drive.

During class, the group talked about addressing child abuse with Kari Pesavento, director of Children’s Connection, an accredited Children’s Advocacy Center based in Norwalk and serving five area towns, including Westport.

Children’s Advocacy Centers are spread across the country, Pesavento said, since the program’s founding in the 1980s. CACs have the goal of handling severe physical abuse, such as repeated or hospitalized cases, and sexual abuse cases the same way for children no matter where they go.

“The child is our first and foremost,” she said.

Norwalk’s center is lucky, according to Pesavento, because the team has seen little turnover in its 25-person team, including police, Department of Children and Families personnel, medical professionals, prosecutors and others.

A central idea of the multidisciplinary team is to ensure a child does not have to tell and retell how they were abused, putting the victim at risk of repeated traumatization and loss of validity because while the child is being honest, Pesavento said, children aim to please and may adjust details of a story based on cues from adults. But even small changes could devalue the legitimacy of the case in court.

In Westport schools, all nurses, social workers and psychologists are trained in how to address a child that may be indicating abuse, Pesavento said.

When children under 18 commit a crime, on the other hand, they enter the juvenile system. Westport’s Juvenile Review Board was branched onto Norwalk’s when founded in 2013. With 25 to 30 cases recommended to the board a year, it made sense not to start an entirely new system, Dobson said.

She said the board can offer first-time youth offenders not committing serious crimes — such as minor assaults or marijuana possession — a second chance through the program. Consequences could include community service or restitution, and the board dictates monitoring, drug testing or therapy when relevant.

Once an offender finishes their mandates, all records of the incident are erased, Dobson said.

Also this week, I went on a nearly four-hour patrol ride-along with Westport police: “Citizens’ Police Academy: On patrol.”; @LauraEWeiss16