Gay man heads DA's child assault unit

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday November 7, 2007
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Gay men sometimes get a bad rap when it comes to children, often being labeled as pedophiles. But that's not what San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris saw when she hired openly gay Julius De Guia last year to lead the office's child assault unit.

Harris saw only a talented professional who would fit into the team she was building.

"The fact that he is a gay man is a bonus, not a negative," said Harris, "because he has a level of awareness and sensitivity to issues that impact vulnerable people."

Harris wasn't blind to the often-unfounded allegations about gay men and children.

"I'm proud that we are breaking those stereotypes," she said.

Harris launched the child assault unit in December 2004, fulfilling one of her commitments from her first campaign for district attorney. At that time, Linda Moore was appointed head of the office. When she rotated out of that position, De Guia was tapped by Harris to fill it.

Harris is running unopposed for re-election November 6.

The unit handles all aspects of child assault cases, from charging through sentencing. The unit uses a variety of tools, from the assistance of legal experts and the latest technology in DNA evidence to working with specially trained medical and law enforcement professionals, to bring justice to the perpetrators.

According to Harris, De Guia is the only openly gay man leading a child assault unit in the United States.

"I think it's actually a break from tradition," said De Guia, 35, who is Filipino. "... [T]here has always been this stereotype idea that pedophiles are gay men and the two terms are interchangeable, so ... it's actually groundbreaking, if not totally amazing, that a gay man here is prosecuting child abuse in the city."

Yet, De Guia, who previously worked for San Diego's out lesbian District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, hasn't experienced any issues related to the fact that he is a gay man and a managing attorney for a major metropolitan child assault unit.

"I knew from the first moment that I met him that he would be a perfect fit in the team that we were building in this office," said Harris. "Not only does he pride himself as being a prosecutor, but he also has a deep commitment to being an active member of the community in which we live. He knows how to strike that important balance of doing justice in the courtroom and doing outreach and education in the community."

De Guia has been a prosecutor for 11 years, working on a variety of criminal cases, but he tried his first child molestation case in 1999 and hasn't looked back. He estimated he has prosecuted 10 child sexual abuse cases and 10 child physical abuse cases.

"During my time in San Diego I just found a passion for prosecuting child abuse because I think that children are some of our most vulnerable victims, and if my role as a prosecutor is going to be to help people and help victims, then I want to use my skills to help the most vulnerable, which in my opinion are children," said De Guia.

He acknowledged that prosecuting assaults against children is difficult due to the fact that many crimes against children happen in "secret," where the only two witnesses are the perpetrator and the victim, making such cases a child's word against an adult's word. De Guia said that he works with the police department to gather as much evidence as possible to corroborate what the child has said, because oftentimes jurors are "hesitant to believe a child's word over an adult's word."

Another issue is that when a case is strong enough to be prosecuted, the children need to be prepared for trial.

"They are very difficult cases to prosecute," said De Guia, "... because there usually isn't enough evidence and when you do charge them you are dealing with child victims and child witnesses that are not ... used to and they are not sometimes able to withstand the rigors and the stresses of going to trial and going to court and facing a defense attorney who is going to cross-examine them left and right."

"You know, it's hard enough for adults, imagine what it is [like] for a victimized child, and so a case can fall apart there."

De Guia estimated that the unit received 86 felony cases involving child physical and sexual abuse in 2006. Figures for 2005 were unavailable, said DA spokeswoman Bilen Mesfin.

De Guia said that his office's first priority is to ensure the child gets as much support and assistance as possible, whether a case goes to trial or not. Despite the difficulty of the job, De Guia said it is worth it, especially when he wins a case and protects other children by sentencing the perpetrator.

"The outcome is you've helped one child feel safer," said De Guia, "and hopefully you protected many other children from being hurt."

Within the past year and a half since De Guia stepped into the position he has changed the way the office functions, he said. He said that he's strengthened and raised standards of how cases are filed and implemented tighter quality control over cases from how they are investigated and negotiated by taking cues from how other counties handle prosecution of child abuse cases. He's also working with city agencies, law enforcement, and medical facilities. The unit works with a network of child protective, medical, and law enforcement agencies.

Cases are often referred to De Guia's office through Kathy Baxter, director of the San Francisco Child Abuse Counsel. Baxter estimated they have close to 6,000 reported cases of child abuse annually. The cases are then referred to the SFPD and De Guia's office for investigation and possible prosecution.

"He's very committed to the issue," said Baxter, "and he has a very warm and engaging style to work with. He's very professional."

Betsy McClutchey, a deputy district attorney in San Diego County, described De Guia as a "passionate prosecutor" with a "very good sense of what is fair and just."

De Guia works closely with the San Francisco Police Department and the Multi-Disciplinary Interview Center, which is the only unit in the city to have trained forensic nurses to interview children who have been raped or sexually assaulted, said Janet Hines, director of the center. Interviews are recorded, then used in court as evidence and to protect the children from re-victimization, De Guia and Hines said.

"I'm really happy to be doing it," said De Guia. "... [T]he work is so challenging, it's so hard, but it's gratifying to know that you're the person standing in the way of someone, who in one form or another, has victimized a child."