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Police Well Checks: Rescue or Ruin for Children Isolated in the Custody of Their Abuser?

When a family court judge orders that a child or children be transferred into the hands of an abuser—especially when the court order demands complete isolation of the child from the Protective Parent for weeks or months—that Protective Parent knows the agony and terror of fearing what that child is facing on their own.

The Protective Parent knows what the current custodial parent is capable of doing to the child and is familiar with the overwhelming fear and sense of powerlessness.

Cooperating with the court and running the gauntlet of all they want the Protective Parent to do tends to be wasted time and expense.

How police well checks can help

Police “well checks” may provide some support to the Protective Parent as well as to the child who experiences the abject helplessness of the parent removed and unable to provide protection.

Under the best circumstances, police well checks may accomplish a useful role by letting the child know that the Protective Parent is there for them by proxy, while letting the abusive parent know that they are being watched.

Now, the abusive parent may also call for well checks, sending a signal to the Protective Parent that they are by no means giving up their superior position.

However, if there is any visible threat to the child, or if the child is able to disclose to the police that there are serious problems, then are a number of interventions may be put into effect.

The role of the police in these situations is to establish at that moment that the child is reasonably well and unharmed, through private communication between police and child.  In that private contact, the police officer may learn that all is not well and the child is in fact in danger.

Can an officer project his own beliefs and biases?

How the officer processes and interprets information is critical in determining the rescue of children who are in acute danger. In fact, the officer can in some cases project his own beliefs and biases, depending on whether the officer

  • knows the subject parent
  • has particular views on punishment
  • has expectations as to how children should express themselves
  • has bias related to custody issues

These are all potential concerns.

When a Protective Parent calls police asking for a well check because of fear that a child might be in danger, tThe officer may, depending on biases, look on the Protective Parent with skepticism while seeing the custodial parent as a good person, good citizen, giving him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that he must be ok because the court gave him custody.

Under these circumstances, the officer won’t be a help to the child or the case. In situations like these, it is critical to reach out to the officer’s superiors and report the bias.

Siding with court orders, enforcing court dictates, and making excuses for the custodial parent are issues that can get in the way of an officer autonomously evaluating the safety of the child.

Common excuses made by police officers

The mindset of police doing well checks is all too often the glib off-handed attitude that there is nothing to see here, there is an explanation that indicts the complainant and exonerates the named parent.

During the well check, a child’s complaints of abuse by the custodial parent are sometimes written off as disobedience, rebellion, lying, manipulating or having a vivid imagination. The child “doesn’t want to be disciplined” or “just wants to be with the parent who is not as strict.”

If there are bruises on the child, we may hear from the officer that the mark was probably due to rough play, or perhaps the toddlers fell when learning to walk, hit their head against furniture.

A frequently expressed view of police officers is that the Protective Parent is trying to undermine the relationship with the custodial parent. The argument stating that the child is experiencing threats and intimidation is rarely asserted.

When police consistently view well-check requests with suspicion, they can blind their own eyes to important information that needs to be seen during a well check with a vulnerable child who is in the hands of an abuser.

For example, when bedroom doors have been taken off of their hinges, it suggests that the parent is depriving the child of protection from intrusion. If children’s pets are suddenly missing, when it is known that those pets were present in the home over a long period of time, their absence should be noted and questioned.

Failure to truly investigate and document well-check complaints may result in crimes against children that could have been avoided. Normalizing heinous abuse, minimizing the magnitude of statements made by children in favor of maintaining a domestic status quo—these things will results in children being subjected to years of vicious unconscionable, soul crushing abuse, or not surviving their childhood.

Protective Parents who require the services of police in these situations must persevere and hold liable the investigating officers.

Case study #1

An officer executed a well check on a child that we knew had serious suicidal ideation and impulses. The child showed the officer around the home indicating the exposure of guns, rifles and hunting knives. The officer noted that the guns, while not locked down and secure were not loaded with ammunition.

In this case, the officer allowed the child to then directed him to the various places where ammunition was stored in unlocked desk drawers and lockers.

Case study #2 (caution: extreme abuse)

Relatives of the custodial parent knew that she was abusing drugs that stimulated extreme violence. They called for police to do a well check on the child

The officer came and saw what he thought was a child sleeping in his crib, but failed to confirm that the child was breathing.

The officer dismissed the scent of cleaning fluids and wet floors / recently shampooed carpets.

Later he became aware that the child was not sleeping, but slipping into a coma, leading to death. The child had been subject to a brutal beating that had left large amounts of blood throughout the apartment.

Case study #3 (caution: extreme abuse)

A father had an extensive psychiatric history, which included hearing voices telling him that his child was Satan and he had to save the world from her.

This father was awarded custody of the child.

At five years old, his child stated that her father photographed her while he was strangling her, paddling her behind (leaving massive hematomas on her buttocks), and biting her vagina.

Police repeatedly failed to document injuries and failed to protect the child.

Case study of the Turpin family

In the case of the Turpin family, Mr. Turpin held a six-figure job as an engineer with Lockheed Martin. He went to work every day wearing a suit, which would certainly make him appear respectable.

However, in January 2018 one of the 13 children escaped and called 911. At that time all the children were finally rescued from a veritable prison where they had been isolated, chained, and starved.

In this case, the physical presence of the children—and the home environment—was beyond compelling.  But in many cases the abuse is more easily dismissed.

Case study of one of Jeffrey Dahmer’s victims (caution: extreme abuse)

The drive to disbelieve victims, to fail to investigate before returning children to an accused abuser, is well documented in the case of police handing over a child to serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

A young teenage boy (pictured in the photo above) escaped from Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment, where he had been drugged and disabled. Three young women encountered the teen and called the police.

Dahmer then approached them, stating that the fourteen-year-old was his nineteen-year old-boyfriend who was drunk.

The three women witnesses argued that the young man was bleeding and incoherent, struggling not to go with Dahmer.

Perhaps it was because the women were black and the boy was Vietnamese, but the officers told the women to mind their own business and then escorted the young man to Dahmer’s apartment and left. That same night, Dahmer proceeded with a brutal murder and cannibalization.

Had the police filed a background check, they would have learned that Dahmer was a convicted sex offender and on probation. The odd stench in Dahmer’s apartment was due to the decomposing bodies of other victims.

Dahmer continued as a serial killer, murdering seventeen victims in total before he was finally apprehended.

What police officers conducting well checks should do

There are many other highly abusive parents who have gained or maintained custody of their children even though documented cruelty and abuse has been presented and disregarded.

In many of these highly disturbed homes where children are captives, preyed upon by a depraved parent, the existence and nature of their abuse is not uncovered the police can no longer avoid it because a murder has taken place.

Police officers proceed with well check visitations only when probable cause has been established in advance. Once an officer proceeds to investigate the welfare of a child or children in the home an objective, he or she should

  • Conduct a detailed evaluation, not making assumptions, not ignoring signs of disorder.
  • Speak with children in a secure, private location.
  • Note any anxiety in the interaction.
  • When warranted, follow up with a forensic evaluation.
  • Refrain from projecting their own interpretation on what they think they are seeing.
  • Maintain a completely professional attitude with the parent present.

The role of the police in these situations is to establish at that moment that the child is reasonably well and unharmed.  In the private contact with the child, the police officer may learn that all is not well and the child is in danger.

Despite the potential problems with well checks, the record that can be obtained during this time has potential to be extremely valuable as the Protective Parents builds a case for the safety of the child.

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