While serving as Lieutenant of Police for the Chicago Police Department (CPD), Patty Casey was tapped to be Commander of CPD’s Special Investigations Unit, or SIU, headquartered at ChicagoCAC since 2001. Created by former police superintendent Terry Hillard, SIU investigates allegations of sexual assault/abuse of children as well as the use of the internet to exploit children. Casey retired as Commander of Youth Investigations in June 2021, and we spoke to her about SIU’s inner workings and role within ChicagoCAC.
What interested you in police work, specifically SIU?
I’d been on the job since 1989, and I knew one of the original SIU sergeants: he was my neighbor, and he would tell me about their work. From the minute I got to the police department, I said to myself, I want to do that. I finally made it to SIU at ChicagoCAC in 2014, and I was just thrilled. I really felt it was something that I was meant to do, and even as a child, I wanted to help children that were being abused. I grew up poor and from a lower middle-class family–not everyone’s ready to share their story, and I may be one of those people, but I did know firsthand what it was like to be abused, and I wanted to make a difference.
We’re curious if you had any insight into how SIU started and moved to ChicagoCAC.
Originally, SIU worked out of the juvenile court building, handling sexual abuse cases and other high profile, newsworthy cases. They worked in conjunction with the Cook County Sheriff’s Office and children would have to go to court to testify. Eventually, all the agencies put their heads together and said, you know what, we must have better communication and coordination, and the idea for the CAC came to fruition. Collaboration among the agencies is the best thing that we can do for the children and families.
How do detectives come to SIU?
Detectives must request to come to SIU, and they are vetted very carefully. If they get through our interview and training process and struggle on the job, we’ll mentor them and try to get them up to par. We’d look for detectives that had a background in working with children. There are SIU detectives that are licensed counselors, who have been teachers or coaches, or worked with the Department of Children and Family Services. Empathy is another reason selecting detectives is so important. SIU detectives not only have empathy for the victim and their family, but they can also show empathy to the offender—which is why SIU has a really good rate for getting confessions. These are cases that are complicated and take an exceptional amount of work. So, an SIU detective must really care about the work that they are doing and have that desire to see the case through to the end.
What are some of the challenges with cases SIU investigates?
In a lot of sexual abuse cases, there’s a delayed outcry. If you tell your story 10 years later, and I’m the detective on the case, I’m not going to have a lot of physical evidence. I’m going to have your statement, perhaps a statement of someone corroborating you, and that’s it. There’s a good chance that the prosecutors may reject the case and not charge the offender, because they feel that they’re going to lose in trial. I was once told by a State’s Attorney, that not every case can be approved, or the system would be overwhelmed. This means that they choose the cases they approve very carefully. I can see why the State’s Attorney’s Office is careful. The decision to charge someone as a sex offender is a serious decision, as those convicted will be added to the sex offender registry. But when you are a detective working so diligently on these cases involving children it can be hard to see the total picture. It can feel frustrating when a case doesn’t move forward.
An offender’s confession is key to a lot of cases. I’ve been there and seen cases made from confessions, and it was always stunning to me that people would confess to such a horrible crime. I think that inside they feel guilty for what they have done. There’s a heavy burden knowing that you have sexually abused a child. Interviews are recorded, which helps ensure that they are given voluntarily. And most of the time, the prosecutors will approve charges where an offender gives a detailed confession, and many offenders do get prosecuted.
What is it like for detectives working out of our center versus area stations?
In 2014, we had about 22 detectives and had close to the same number of cases as there were in 2020. There were times we were down as low as 16 detectives, not only working on normal cases but also Internet Crimes Against Children cases. With COVID, cases have gone up, especially internet cases. Over time, we were able to increase and maintain our staffing–I think SIU is still at 35 to 40 detectives. There’s still the same amount of space, so it’s crowded, but everyone has their own desk. In the area station, you’d scramble for a desk, so though it might be short on space at the center, one of the selling points is that you have a desk. Additionally, when a detective is in an area station, they don’t get the same DCFS worker all the time. I’m sure CAC folks would love more room, but when you compare it to working offsite, this is the best thing that you can do, putting these agencies together and having them get to know each other. Personal relationships are a big part of why this works!
Tell us more about the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Historically there were only a few detectives assigned to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. There were less cases too. But the number of crimes occurring because of COVID are so substantial, so I know that they’re currently working very closely with the State’s Attorney’s Office to expand ICAC.
During the COVID lockdown, children were on the internet all the time, which provided predators with a bigger pool of victims. And gaming has become like an addiction to some children, and parents must be wary of what’s going on behind closed doors. It’s so easy for these predators now. It doesn’t just have to be chat sites: they can get into gaming rooms, and they have other ways that they can enter this virtual world. Children don’t realize that they’re not talking to another 16-year-old, but instead a 50-year-old with bad intentions.
Thankfully there’s been more reporting on this, and about the proliferation of child sexual abuse imagery, so at least it’s getting more exposure. ICAC has been doing training at schools and for parent organizations on recognizing red flags that may show that your child is being abused on the Internet or keeping children safe while they’re doing their Zoom and other things online.
What were some of your most important relationships at ChicagoCAC?
A lot of times, we did parallel investigations with DCFS. In looking at past mistakes or when things went wrong, often it was a breakdown or lack of communication—maybe a child came in, and CPD didn’t know that they had been in at other times because they used a different name. Communication helps prevent cases from slipping through the cracks, so our communication with DCFS is so important.
It is also very important for detectives to have relationships with each other. SIU is closer than most other units. They call each other family—I miss my SIU family. Detectives also need to have a good relationship with the forensic interviewer, because if they have any insight that they can provide to the interviewer prior to the interview, both sides can be armed with this information.
But when I was at the CAC, all my relationships were important, and they were all so strong. No matter your political beliefs or differences in the way you investigate, we all have the same goal in mind: to protect the child and get the best outcome that we could. I knew if a family was having a psychological issue, I could go and talk to mental health, for instance. You’re not going to have those important relationships if you’re not working together daily.
SIU also had fun helping at events like the Kids’ Holiday Party. One of our detectives, Manny, who we sadly lost recently, was like a real-life Santa, and he of course had so much fun being Santa for the kids. We did this for three years—I volunteered to be his elf helper, and we made a great team.
What’s something this work taught you?
The last few years have been really challenging for the police. We can’t deny that there’s mistrust and some anti-police sentiment. I don’t know how everyone in the building feels, but I think because they work together and see the work the police do, they might see the police in a different light than they may be portrayed in general or in the media. But despite our differences at times, I saw some outstanding work, and I think I learned that even if we didn’t get the result we wanted, we can still help the families and help the child by letting their voice be heard. And you can learn about a child’s challenges by talking to them and their family. In cases where there was family violence, and we can, say, help the mother, the result is often making things better for the entire family. I carry that with me in my real life—keep going and find a way to make it better.
Did you or other detectives ever get to see happy outcomes of some of the cases that were investigated, where, you know, a child did get to heal?
Detectives of course follow trials, and I know some detectives follow up with the family to see how they’re doing. So, that way we do get some positive feedback, and I know people in real life that have been able to heal after they’ve been abused. Anything that the CAC does can help make that process quicker, I think it is important that the child gets closure so they can move on.
We’re human, you know! The detectives may have good days or bad days, as the work they do can weigh on them. When I was in SIU, we tried to check on everyone’s mental health, have a chat and provide peer support, because you must remember we were hearing some horrible stories. Even if I was just hearing from detectives rather than sitting in interviews, you really can get post-traumatic stress from listening to these stories. I always feel like we’re sin eaters, you know you hear things, and you have to release it somewhere.
Do you mind sharing your own self-care you did while you were working? And what do you do for fun now that you’re retired?
I have a degree in psychology, and I am also a peer support counselor for the Chicago Police Department, so I’m very aware of my own mental health. And one thing is that I was comfortable sharing when I was having a bad day. I’d also try to be cognizant of when we might need a team building day or a day where we got a visit from the chaplains or other outside support. I know that you care for yourself before you can care for other people.
In my retirement now, while I’m doing some consulting for security services, I’m spending time with my family and my seven grandchildren. A lot of times people that retire don’t keep active, and that’s not me. My body doesn’t always feel young, but you know, I want to keep going. There are other things I want to do, like audition for a play or be an extra in a movie, fun stuff, things I’ve never tried before but always wanted to do. But I can say that nothing will ever compare to working with SIU and the memories that I made while there.