Area law enforcement members, from left, Ramirez Ivy, Antoine Golden and Eric Johnson listen during a child abuse investigation training session at the Hilton Garden Inn in Starkville Monday. The class was hosted by Sally Kate Winters Family Services. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Clay County Child Protective Services employee Valeda Smith grimaces while watching video footage of child abuse during a child abuse investigation training session at the Hilton Garden Inn in Starkville Monday. "It's tough to see but it's the reality and I'll take a lot away from this class today to help children and my own cases," she said.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Jim Holler, consultant and former police chief of Liberty Township, Pennsylvania, speaks to local law enforcement and child protective services during a child abuse investigation training program at the Hilton Garden Inn in Starkville Monday.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
March 13, 2018 10:37:14 AM
Audible gasps filled the conference room at the Starkville Hilton Garden Inn as pictures of a bruised child flashed onto a projector screen.
The child was "Baby" Brianna Lopez a five-month-old child whose parents beat her to death in 2002 in New Mexico.
Another slide featured a news report about a child who was found locked in a cage inside a home. Two slides later in the presentation featured videos, one of a nanny beating a child that refused to eat and later vomited, and another of a man punching and squeezing a screaming baby before throwing her into a crib multiple times.
The images and videos, often hard to watch, made a point that presenter Jim Holler wanted to make to the room full of law enforcement officers and Child Protection Services workers: Child abuse is a very real threat in any community, and it's vital for agencies to work together to stop it.
Holler is a consultant and former police chief of Liberty Township, Pennsylvania. His presentation Monday was part of a child abuse investigation training session offered through a collaboration of the Mississippi 16th Circuit District Attorney's office and Sally Kate Winters Family Services.
"We've got such a big problem with physical abuse and sexual abuse here in the United States," Holler told The Dispatch. "These departments are so overwhelmed with cases -- most people don't have any idea. They don't realize that. Just to make their jobs a little bit easier, to give them some tools so they can help the kids -- that's what this is all about."
During the 90-minute presentation, Holler walked the officers and CPS workers through several risk factors for child abuse. Those, he said, include drug abuse, lack of support, economic stress and poverty, or a lack of knowledge about child development. He said the biggest factor is when a child is left with a caregiver who lacks an emotional attachment.
During his presentation, Holler also pointed out that, while child abuse is a very real threat and suspects will often claim an "accident" happened to cover up the abuse, accidents do sometimes actually happen. As an example, he showed a security camera recording of a father walking with his son in a supermarket when they slipped and fell. The father landed on the child, accidentally killing him.
It can be tough, Holler said, to parse the differences between accidents that happen to children and legitimate cases of abuse.
"Freak things happen," he said. "Those of you who have kids, you know that. Those of you who do not have kids -- sometimes what I've found is investigators early on in their career without kids were more quick sometimes to jump to conclusions that it was an intentional act.
"But it's funny to watch the transition when you have kids and you start watching that one- or two-year-old running around the house and there are just freak falls -- you're looking at the bruises on their body because they're just falling all the time," he added. "That's what makes your job so difficult."
To help try to make out those differences, Holler suggested that officers use different tools as they investigate potential cases of abuse. For example, he said Play-Doh is excellent for trying to recreate bruises or marks. He also suggested trying to recreate what potential suspects said happened, using a baby doll.
Most importantly, he said investigators need to be thorough and take measurements and record as much as possible from the scene.
Holler said child abuse training cases often take teamwork between law enforcement and CPS. He said it's vital that officers and CPS workers have a good rapport--even if that takes sitting down over drinks somewhere to talk about each others' jobs.
"Ladies and gentlemen, when I think about superheroes, you are the superheroes of Mississippi," Holler said "You're the superheroes changing the lives of these kids, and it takes that team effort of us joining together to stand up for these kids."
Steven Woodruff, an investigator with the DA's office, said Monday's training is meant to help officers, who often naturally are better inclined to deal with adult situations than ones involving children, find ways to deal with child abuse cases.
"It's paramount that we provide the training to law enforcement to investigate these cases so we can prosecute them," he said. "...We give them guns, we give them a bulletproof vest and we give them bullets. But if we don't give them the knowledge to investigate every aspect of the job, we're failing the community and we're failing that child."
Sheila Brand, Executive Director of Sally Kate Winters Family Services, said the training aimed to strengthen law enforcement officers' and CPS workers' knowledge of how to handle cases of abuse. Cases are being reported more frequently in the Golden Triangle. In 2017, the Sally Kate Winters children's advocacy center conducted 226 forensic interviews for Clay, Lowndes, Oktibbeha and other counties -- 73 percent more than in 2016.
"In order for these crimes to be prosecuted, those cases have to be very strong in order for the district attorney's office to have the information they need to move forward," she said. "That's really the goal of today's training -- setting those steps in place and giving them different ways of thinking about investigation and documentation and working together as a team"
Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Office Sgt. First Class Jon Davis said he found Holler's training to be very helpful.
"He actually brought in some new techniques as far as investigating child death crimes and things like that that we could definitely use," Davis said. "I've worked in investigations for several years and never did it dawn on me to use Play-Doh. I thought it was excellent training. I know he cut us off short because it was only a two-hour seminar, but I wouldn't mind sitting through the whole class to see what it's about."
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