Sharing concerns about children

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A judge declared a former Muncie high school principal guilty Friday in failing to immediately report a 2010 rape allegation in his school, calling into question the definitions of "child abuse"and "immediately."

Meanwhile, a South Bend Police search last week of Department of Child Services intake reports — routinely forwarded to police agencies — turned up nothing referring to a caller’s pleas last spring to stop ongoing abuse at a South Bend home, where a 10-year-old was found dead from abuse six months later.

And in both cases, DCS employees who answered the calls apparently never contacted law enforcement, instead relying on the callers to the 800-800-5556 hotline to also alert police.

‘You can call the police’

Sweeping changes to DCS policies in the last several years have been the focus of a Tribune series in February, “For the Love of Children,” and several articles since.

One of the most hotly debated changes has been the recent closings of local call centers in favor of centralizing all child abuse and neglect calls through Indianapolis.

An article nearly two weeks ago described the Tribune’s successful fight for hotline recordings involving the beating death of 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis in his family’s West Washington Street home. In one of the recordings, in May 2011, an anonymous caller offers many accurate details about the family and pleads repeatedly for authorities to intervene at the Sturgis home right then, because
children were being beaten that night.

The caller said the injuries were visible under the children’s shirts, and that the basement was where Terry Sturgis, the father now charged with killing Tramelle and abusing other children, was living in filth with many of the kids. The caller referred to having called once before, “in December,” but that nothing was done then.

The caller was worried about identification, citing longtime violence in the Sturgis home.

“If the police go there right now, y’all go there, I think y’all see it,” the caller says in the recording. “I really do.”

“Well, if you have an immediate concern,” the hotline worker replies, “you can call the police. I mean — ”

“I know but, you know, I don’t want my — you know ... I live by myself...” the caller says.

“All right,” the DCS worker says.

“... and I don’t want no problems,” the caller says.

A couple of hours after the detailed call, an anonymous voice described much like that of whoever called the DCS line earlier then dialed police but provided few details, alluding to calling the 800 number earlier.

Crime in progress?

Records in the Sturgis case indicate that the hotline worker contacted a local on-call DCS case manager that night. But nothing suggests that either employee contacted police at any point, and no explanation has been offered as to why the on-call worker did not go to the home immediately.

When two South Bend police officers responded to the vague call to them just after midnight, they reported seeing nothing suspicious.

DCS uses intake forms — numbered 310 — to alert law enforcement agencies of reports of abuse and neglect that come to them, and local police departments report seeing them routinely. St. Joseph County agencies usually forward those to the county’s Special Victims Unit for review.

DCS is noticeably requesting more public records about suspects and situations through South Bend police recently, according to spokesman Capt. Phil Trent.

When a 310 report is sent, a case file is automatically opened and the 310 report attached to it, Trent says, even if the report is also forwarded to the special unit.

But he says no such DCS report can be found in South Bend police records listing the Sturgis name.

A DCS spokeswoman said she was not able to respond to Tribune queries last week about how DCS works with law enforcement, including questions about when call center workers alert police or about 310 reports.

Call center policies described on the DCS website refer to how and when law enforcement officials should contact DCS, but not about when DCS should call law enforcement. And online Child Welfare Manual chapters for DCS employees about intake reports and screenings don’t obviously address reporting to law enforcement agencies.

“The rule of thumb is: If there’s a crime in progress, we’re the ones to call,” Trent says. “Ultimately, though, the arbiter of the whole thing is right back to DCS.”

‘Picking and choosing’

Under Indiana law, everyone is obligated to report a suspicion of abuse or neglect to a child. The laws are even stricter for those in some professions, such as people who work in schools.

In a Delaware County case, a judge on Friday agreed with prosecutors that a former Muncie Central High School principal broke the mandatory reporting law by waiting more than four hours to call the DCS hotline after a 16-year-old girl reported a bathroom rape by a fellow student.

According to records, the girl was a ward of the court and living in a center in another county. Then-Principal Christopher Smith asked her to write a statement about what had happened.

The principal did not require the boy involved to write a statement, even though testimony later showed that the boy was caught in lies during initial questioning (without law enforcement). Smith allowed him to return to class and, ultimately, leave the building for the day.

The boy later pleaded guilty in the crime.

Smith declined more than once to involve local police officers, even those working in the school as security officers. A worker where the girl was living was called, and she took the girl to a hospital, where a hospital employee finally contacted police.

Instead, the principal continued his afternoon plans with job interviews and, with another administrator, called the DCS hotline about 4:30 p.m. Nov. 9, 2010.

Smith later said he did not consider child-on-child rape child abuse, and that school policies gave 24 hours to report suspected abuse or neglect.

But Deputy Prosecutor Eric Hoffman discounted those defenses in court pleadings, adding that Smith simply did not believe the victim and did not want to embarrass the school with an arrest. Hoffman told the court that then-Superintendent Eric King — a finalist for South Bend schools superintendent last year who resigned from consideration after this case was publicized here — had passed down his philosophy that school “was not a place for police activity.”

“The requirement of an immediate report is not some arbitrary notion that the General Assembly inserted into the statute,” Hoffman wrote in a post-trial brief. “The legislature specifically chose to require that child abuse and neglect be reported immediately. Such a requirement is needed to prevent people like Chris Smith from picking and choosing what and whom to believe.”

‘An absolute duty’

Yet when Smith called the DCS hotline that day, the DCS employee at the other end of the line indicated that the call would be “screened out.”

According to a transcript of that call, the two school administrators said they had called the youth center where the girl lived.

“Given that the child is 16, this is something I believe that we would probably refer to law enforcement, I’m not sure if that has been done yet or not,” the DCS worker says.

“No,” Smith replies.

“Would you like me to contact them or would you like to contact them?” the DCS employee asks.

“We are going to contact them,” the other administrator replies.

Later in the call, the DCS employee says, “Like I said, this looks like something we are going to screen out on our end but it is something that we would probably go ahead and forward to law enforcement so if you are saying that is something you guys will do...”

“Yeah,” Smith says.

“... then I’ll just make a note of that in this report,” the worker finishes.

Yet, according to a court brief Hoffman wrote later, “The Defendant nor anyone else contacted law enforcement.”

Hoffman was pleased with the message the judge delivered in the rare prosecution of failure to report abuse.

“If there is one thing to take away from this case, it is that the failure to immediately report child abuse or neglect will not be tolerated by the Delaware County prosecutor’s office,” he wrote in an e-mailed statement Friday. “We all as citizens have an absolute duty to report to the proper authorities child abuse and neglect.”

‘Nothing really black and white’

But Hoffman also thinks statutes about DCS’ role in reporting to law enforcement need some clarification, and he worked with a state prosecutors group during the 2011 General Assembly in a defeated attempt to tweak state law.

Current law says of DCS, “Upon the receipt of each report under this chapter of known or suspected child abuse, the department shall contact the law enforcement agency in the appropriate jurisdiction."

But the definition of child abuse or under what circumstances a child may be declared a Child in Need of Services is at issue, says Suzanne O’Malley, assistant executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council.

O’Malley, a former Marion County prosecutor for 15 years specializing in sex crimes, says laws now include loopholes that include only adult-on-child sexual assaults, for instance. But reporters of abuse or neglect are also seeking help for children who might not technically meet strict CHINS guidelines.

She says DCS Director James Payne strongly opposed and successfully fought the proposed amendments last year.

“DCS was concerned they were going to get more cases that in their eyes aren’t theirs,” she says.

Toward the end of this year’s General Assembly session, newspaper reports about DCS controversies prompted Democrats to propose a number of amendments to DCS-related bills. Republicans shot down most of those efforts.

But in the end, a summer study committee was established to examine several DCS-related issues, including how well the centralized call center is working.

O’Malley says cooperation between law enforcement agencies and DCS seemed quicker and more efficient when calls were taken at a county level.

“I think prosecutors would like to see that type of working together restored,” she says.

Yet, she points out: “Legislation is so hard, because nothing is really black and white in child abuse.”

Contact Virginia Black:
574-235-6321
vblack@sbtinfo.com
facebook.com/tribune.virginiablack

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