Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer has vowed that prosecutors will remain vigilant in investigating child and elder abuse cases, even though the courts have largely shut down to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.
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“The courts are open for emergency orders. So the courts are still able to handle referrals from social services, if they come through for a prosecution,” Spitzer said at a Thursday news conference.
During the afternoon news conference, officials also gave an update of virus case numbers.
As of Thursday, the virus has killed 17 people out of 1,079 confirmed cases. The case count includes 127 hospitalizations, with 63 people in intensive care units.
Over 12,200 people were tested for the virus in OC since the pandemic began and the Health Care Agency had 1,578 test kits on hand. The County also has begun releasing race and ethnicity demographics on the cases.
Meanwhile, Spitzer said his family law unit is still monitoring child and elder abuse cases.
“So we’re fully up and running and operational, and we’re reviewing all the cases that are coming into us,” Spitzer said.
Spitzer also voiced his concerns about the underreporting of child and elder abuse cases, echoing Voice of OC’s reporting from earlier this week, highlighting what Social Service Agency Director Debra Baetz told County supervisors at the Tuesday meeting.
“A little bit concerning to us is that our child abuse registrery has seen an approximately 44 percent decrease in calls coming into the registery. We believe that’s directly related to the fact that schools not in session and our educators are our primary mandatory reporter,” Baetz told county supervisors at Tuesday’s public meeting.
School teachers are the primary mandatory reporters of child abuse cases.
“Additionally, even more concerning to us is the fact that we have seen a 62 percent decrease in calls coming into our adult protective services registry,” Baetz said.
Spitzer said the stay home orders may put some children and elders at risk.
“One of the things we’re going to learn after this pandemic is over is that by having people sheltered at home, we have potentially put children and edlerly people closer to their abusers,” he said.
Spitzer encouraged people to call the Social Service Agency’s abuse hotline if they see a distressed child with bruises or suspected elder abuse cases.
The agency has investigators that follow reports of elder and child abuse.
“They still send out investigators, they can still refer out to the police agencies for arrests. So our arrests are dramatically down in Orange County … but if a social services case worker believes there’s cause for an arrest, we’re going to prosecute that case,” Spitzer said.
Separately, Spitzer said prosecutors are tracking any potential price gouging during the virus pandemic.
While nobody has been prosecuted for price gouging, Spitzer said people have been warned.
“We’re serving them a letter, we’re putting them on notice that they’re operating in a gray area,” Spitzer said. “It’s a way to tell people, be careful, do not exploit the public.”
Price gouging won’t be prosecuted under normal criminal law, but under the state’s executive order.
Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order April 3 to combat price gouging around the state, barring price increases of 10 percent or more on essential items like medical supplies and food.
But Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana) Spitzer said the existing law has loopholes in it, which Umberg is trying to close with his bill.
Newsom’s executive order closes the loophole, but only during the pandemic.
Umberg’s bill would apply to online sellers and apply to new merchants on the market “who did not sell the goods or services prior to the emergency, 10 percent greater than the total cost of the seller plus the markup customarily applied by a similarly situated seller.”
“Under the law today, you had to have already been in the business of selling these masks before the pandemic. … if you saw an opportunity to make money and you bought all these masks, but you never sold these masks in the market place before, you couldn’t be charged,” Spitzer said. “We will close that loophole through a state law. We don’t need it right now because of Gov. Newsom’s order.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County: