Right now in an average U.S. city, a narcotics detective is executing a search warrant based on a tip that he will find methamphetamine in the home. When he enters the home, he will find a mother, father, and three children, aged 10, 8, and 4. The home is deplorable. The floor crunches as he walks from room to room. He will indeed find methamphetamine, not a huge amount, but enough that both parents will be arrested. Both parents will be interviewed about their drug habits, where they got their meth, and other drug related questions. They will claim to be small time users who can barely support their habits. They will bond out of jail within 48 hours.
What the narcotics detective will not find is far more serious than the methamphetamine. He will see a mattress and a small doll in the basement, but he will not ask why it is there. He will see the broken toys and notice the lack of school books, but he will not ask about these things either. This detective knows how to thoroughly search a crime scene, and he will even find methamphetamine hidden in the oldest child’s bedroom. He will not ask her about it.
We are leaving children behind when we fail to cross train our professionals. Every day, law enforcement officers execute search warrants on homes that are full of children; they stop vehicles that are full of children. Those officers are looking for drugs, evidence of a theft, or any number of criminal offenses. They find methamphetamine, but they miss the abuse that is in plain sight because they don’t know what they are seeing or what to do with their suspicions. Across the country, law enforcement agencies divide their labor into patrol officers and detectives; the detectives are further divided into property crimes, crimes against persons, and narcotics investigations. They go out into the communities in these compartmentalized units and often those units do not work in tandem with one another.
The narcotics detective in that average city is a well-trained, experienced detective. He has worked major trafficking cases on local, state, and federal levels. Yet he missed evidence that was right under his nose. If he had been better trained in how to spot child abuse, he would have asked about the mattress in the basement. A simple question to the 8 year old boy, “tell me about the mattress downstairs,” would have elicited information that Uncle Joe comes from Texas to visit his family once a month. When Uncle Joe comes, he brings a bag full to white crystals. Uncle Joe and his dad then take the boy’s two sisters to the basement and they stay down there for a while. His sisters always cry.
A brief conversation with the 10 year old daughter about the methamphetamine found in her room would result in information that she took the drugs from her parents and hid them, both in hopes of keeping them sober and that maybe she could trade it for some food. She hasn’t been allowed to go to school since Uncle Joe started taking her to the basement. She really wants to go back to school because she gets to eat lunch there.
Instead of convicting the parents of rape, trafficking, and various forms of neglect, these parents will be placed on probation for minor drug offenses. Asking just a few questions would not only have saved these children from a torturous life, it would have also furthered the narcotics investigation by identifying the methamphetamine supplier.
We have to make efforts to educate every person who might come in contact with abused children. Officers who encounter abused children in the field have the chance to save the life of a child who is too terrified to speak up. These are children who may never report their abuse and this encounter represents the one opportunity to intervene. Trainings such as Your FIRST Response and From Crime Scene to Trial are crucial for any law enforcement officer. All officers, not just child abuse detectives, must know how to spot the indicators of abuse, and they need to know how to appropriately talk to a child about concerns abuse may be occurring. The officers do not need to be able to complete a child abuse investigation, but they need to know how to gather enough information to bring in someone who has additional trainings.