TRIUMPH OF SPIRIT - CHILD ABUSE AND THE LAW
Child abuse cases were very difficult to work, and the cases were hard to
prove, because the victims were so young-and people did not want to talk
about abuse. The frustration of working child abuse was compounded by the court system. Child abuse came under the jurisdiction of a lenient juvenile court system; most of the time, the abused child, usually a baby,
was sent right back home with the parents. Over and over, I removed the same child from the same home. I was determined to help these children. I took every case that came in.
One case in particular made me determined to change Portland's
system. It was my first conscious decision to make a real impact on how
policing was done.
One Saturday, I received a call from a physician in a little walk-in clinic. He thought he had a child who was abused. When I arrived at the clinic, he took me in the back room where I saw a small child, a baby
maybe four or five months old. The child had what is called a greenstick fracture of the arm. His soft limb had been twisted and twisted until it splintered into fibers.
The parents told the physician their son poked his arm through the slats of the crib, causing the injury. The physician said it was impossible for a greenstick fracture to occur that way; the parents were clearly lying.
Finally, I thought, I had a medical man willing to say how the injury had really occurred, so I could arrest the parents. This was a long time before shield laws were in effect, and most physicians would not give formal statements and testify in court.
As it turned out, my optimism was quickly dampened. When I asked
for his formal statement, his response was a clear no way. He was afraid of being sued. How am I going to prove
this? I asked him.
He basically said that it was my problem. He just wanted me to know how the injury really occurred....
I took the child into custody, went back to the office, and wrote
up the reports. The next weekday, the judge released the child back to the parents. Without witnesses, and without the
doctors testimony, there was no way to prove abuse.
About three months later, we responded to a neighbors call about a
child crying. As we pulled up in front of the house, I saw a man run from
the house and take off down the street. I recognized him; it was the same couple, and the same child-a beautiful blond boy, now seven
months old, obviously not cared for, and covered with bruises. Again, I took him into custody....
Again, we went through a hearing at juvenile court. Again, we had no witnesses. Again,
the judge sent the child home with his parents.... About three months later, on a Sunday, I got a call about a screaming baby. It was a different address, but when I got there, I quickly
recognized the young woman on the porch....
She was acting strangely.... I opened the door to the house. It was an old house, with an upstairs and a downstairs apartment; hers was the upstairs apartment. As I started up the steps, I knew in my heart the baby was dead. I still get shivers when I think about it. There was a feeling, a presence of death in that house. I could feel it. I walked up the stairs and looked around cautiously, just in case the father was still there. I searched the rooms and didn't see him. I went into the baby's room and saw him lying there. His tiny head was caved in, and there was a big, bloody spot on the wall. His father had picked up this tiny child by his feet and smashed his head into the wall.
I called the coroner's office and the detectives, and waited until
they arrived to take the baby away.
I was so upset, the next day I went out to the courthouse. I walked
into that judge's courtroom before she heard her first case and started
yelling at her for returning that child to its parents.
"I hope you're satisfied. That baby is dead now, and its because of
"No, officer," she answered. "It's not because I gave that child
back. You're partially responsible for not doing a better job of
investigating the case."
Her words cut deeply into my heart.
That child's death, and the judge's comments, spurred me to learn
as much as I could about child abuse....
My knowledge was quickly put to use. Very soon after the baby's death, I was called about a two-year-old child who had been beaten to death. We found him with cigarette burns all over his body. I was certain the father did it.
I followed every rule and more. I did an investigation, I took pictures, I did everything I could think of. I met with a new deputy district attorney. I told him I was determined to get child abuse cases moved out of the juvenile system and into the criminal courts.
He didn't agree with me and refused to take the case. Then I pulled out my pictures of the abused child. One at a time, I deliberately placed them down on his desk.
"This is a murder case," I said. "This child died!"
By the time I was done...he issued a warrant for the man's arrest. It was the first time in Portland that someone had been tried in criminal court for child abuse....
These early successes were good for my career, but still considered women's work. Women remained restricted to the Women's Protective Division and were still not in uniform.
Doing the "women's work" did not shield us from potentially deadly situations. One day we received a call to go to a house where a neighbor was holding two children to be picked up and taken to a shelter. The mother was in a hospital and the father was in jail.
When my partner and I arrived, I walked up the stairs of a porch,
where a man stood waiting. I presumed he was the neighbor who had called the police.
"Hi, I'm here to take the kids." No sooner were the words out of my mouth, when the man pulled out a .38 revolver.
"You ain't taking my kids."
...My partner had called for back-up, and out of the corner of my eye, I could see an officer inching toward the rear of the house, approaching from behind. I stood on the porch with the father, whose back was slightly turned away from the approaching officer. I knew that as soon as the officer vaulted the porch railing and grabbed the man from behind, I would have to hit him from the front. It had to be perfectly timed, or the .38 could kill me. I had to maneuver the man so his back would be fully turned to the oncoming officer.
I spoke softly and calmly.
"You're all right...it's OK.... Don't worry...everything will be fine."
As I talked, I moved slowly until we were positioned just right. The officer vaulted and leaped; I grabbed the gun and twisted.
That was easy, I thought-but only for a moment. Then the delayed
shock hit, and I started to tremble.
It was clear that working in the Women's Protective Division certainly did not shelter the women officers from the reality of law enforcement. In addition to working child abuse and its associated dangers, I saw prostitutes beaten with coat hangers and electric cords. I raced ninety miles an hour through city streets to shootings in progress. I
helped medical examiners move bodies that literally fell to pieces in my arms. All in my pretty white gloves and hat. After all, we were ladies.
Harrington, P.E., Chapter 3: Child Abuse and the Law,Triumph of Spirit,
Copyright © 1999 by Penny E. Harrington. Reprinted by permission
of Brittany Publications, Ltd. (Chicago). All rights reserved.