Why child abuse investigations don't always result in criminal charges

BROWN COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Concerned community members have been asking why it took so long to charge two De Pere parents with the mental and physical abuse of their adopted children when the abuse had been reported several times over a period of 12 years.

This week, Brown County prosecutors filed child abuse and neglect charges against Sharon Windey and Donald Windey. Their adult son, Steven Windey, was arrested and released on bond. He hasn't been formally charged.

A 42-page criminal complaint states investigators found "overwhelming" confirmation that since 2006, there have been Child Protective Services referrals, police contacts and reports from school officials about the children being victims of physical abuse, mental abuse, child neglect and inappropriate sexual contact in the Windey home on Sullivan Street.

The children reported being punched and choked and being forced to eat their own vomit.

Since Action 2 News reported the details of the complaint, viewers have asked if these children "fell through the cracks." We found that there is no easy answer.

There are many levels to an investigation, and it's not always easy to prove abuse or neglect, especially when there is no physical evidence.

No local or state officials could comment on the Windey case, but they gave us insight on the process of investigating child abuse cases.

Thousands of possible abuse cases are reported in Brown County every year, but only a small fraction reach the point of criminal charges.

The Department of Children and Families oversees the safety of children in Wisconsin. The agency received more than 78,000 reports of possible abuse in 2016. Only one-third of those cases reached the point where Child Protective Services (CPS) investigated.

In Brown County, 154 of the 477 abuse reports filed in January 2018 were investigated.

Click here to view the department's interactive dashboard on child abuse investigations.

Click here to view the Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect report.

Brown County Human Services Executive Director Erik Pritzl says CPS will interview parents, children and others around them while trying to spot abuse.

"Sometimes you're going to get information that might not fit, it might contradict. And many times you have to work through that the best you can, validate through second sources," Pritzl says. "Sometimes you just have to decide which piece of information seems to have more merit to it."

Pritzl says if CPS can't find physical evidence or if what they find doesn't meet the legal definition of abuse they can refer families to services. After that, they say their hands are tied.

"Ultimately, families, if they decide they don't want to engage with us, they have the right to say 'no', because we haven't met the statutory definitions of requiring it," Pritzl says.

State Rep. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere) says there are currently no efforts to change the law. He tells us cases like the Windey investigation cause people to take a second look.

"In all areas of our statutes, we have to really take a look at updating them and make sure that we are protecting the victims that we're intending to," Jacque says. "And really hoping to stop some of those bigger problems down the road."

The criminal complaints filed against the Windeys note an incident of one of their children being choked. One of the kids said, "CPS might take us seriously now that this happened," according to the complaints.

Child advocates tell us they don't want anyone to be discouraged to report abuse.

"We don't need to make the determination that it is abuse or neglect, but if we are concerned, as a parent or community member, we need to call the right people," says Paula Breese, executive director, Family and Childcare Resources of N.E.W.

Pritzl says it is important to report abuse because it could be the information they need to take action and keep a child safe.

He released this statement on child abuse investigations:

"Child Protective Services reviews every report that is made to the department, and has to make a decision about whether each report rises to the level of response or not. When there is a response, the information is assessed through interviews of family members and others close to the family by caseworkers. This process can occur with law enforcement in many situations. The purpose of Child Protective Services is to determine if there are threats to a child’s safety that rise to the level of intervention, and if the court system needs to be engaged to support intervention. When thresholds are not met, caseworkers can offer to work with families on a voluntary basis, but it is within the family’s rights to decide if they want to work with Child Protection and, in the absence of an identifiable condition endangering the child, the decision has to be respected.

In general, the burden of proof needed to bring an abuse or neglect case forward is more readily met in cases that involve clear signs of physical abuse, such as frequent bruising or other serious physical injury and in cases where there are clear signs of neglect, such as malnourishment. In those types of cases medical personnel are often utilized to support the allegations. Cases that rely primarily on oral allegations, which are often refuted by others, are much more difficult to bring forward, but are taken just as seriously by the department and are thoroughly investigated to the best of our abilities.

Our supervisors and caseworkers work tirelessly to determine if children are safe, and make difficult decisions every day regarding further intervention. They devote time to training and developing skills to make them more effective at providing services to the community. They also work diligently on partnerships to promote effective responses to allegations of child abuse and neglect, and will continue to do so for the benefit and protection of children and families.

Brown County is fortunate to have an array of options to work with families including early intervention services, community response, and supportive prevention services through non-profit agencies. Even with these interventions alongside Child Protection, we see outcomes that are not what is intended.

Brown County Health and Human Services works with the Department of Children and Families in reviewing practice and a system level review when it is called for, and to make changes and improvements at the conclusion of reviews."

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