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Project gives officers chance to help K.I.D.S.

The detectives in a new sheriff's unit have only one goal: to assist children who have witnessed domestic violence.

By TAMARA LUSH

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001


The woman's husband had beat her, while his 11-year-old son watched. "Daddy get off her," the boy had yelled.

And when the cops put Dad in a cruiser, the boy told his father that he loved him. His father replied: "Yeah, right."

Just before Christmas, the woman was in court, talking about the case with a judge.

In the front row, a man listened with more than passing interest. After the hearing, Pasco County sheriff's Det. Larry Engle told the woman he thought he could help her children.

Soon he was driving the woman and five children to a battered women's shelter.

On the drive, a 7-year-old asked: Do we get our own toothbrushes? Is there hot water? Do they let us take showers at the shelter?

Engle tried to change the subject, and asked the kids if they were excited about the upcoming holiday. The kids said yes, but the reason surprised the veteran cop.

"We don't go away from the table hungry," the kids told Engle. "It's one of two good meals we get all year."

Engle noted that his investigation revealed that the father had plenty of money for beer and smokes.

"It rips your heart out," he said.

This was Engle's first case as a detective for Kids in Domestic Situations, a pilot program at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office that is 2 1/2 months old. While another deputy arrested the father, Engle's sole mission was to help the children.

And these children definitely needed help.

Like many kids who had witnessed violence in the home, the 11-year-old and at least one of his siblings acted violently. They swore. They were truant.

They refused to talk to Engle at first, because they didn't like cops.

But Engle has gotten the kids into counseling and has become a mentor. He talks to them every week, and now the kids hug him when they see him.

The K.I.D.S. unit only investigates the cases where children between the ages of 6 and 18 have witnessed domestic violence.

If the children meet certain criteria -- if they have been a witness to violence, live in a high-crime neighborhood or have been habitually truant from school -- the detectives steer the kids to the proper social service agencies to help them handle the problem.

"These kids are fighting battles that most people will never know," said Det. Joe Little, one of four detectives in the unit. "They are like soldiers fighting wars."

The program was a pet project for former Sheriff Lee Cannon, who worked for more than three years to fund and form the unit. Last May, lawmakers gave $274,862 toward the project for one year. Newly elected Sheriff Bob White has vowed to fight for another year of funding.

"I would be amazed if it doesn't work," said Penny Morrill, the chief executive officer of Sunrise, an east Pasco shelter for battered women.

It is the only law enforcement project of its kind in Florida, according to Sgt. Mike Schreck, who is in charge of the unit. Similar programs are offered by battered women's shelters and other Tampa Bay social service agencies. The four detectives now handle 62 cases. That number eventually will swell to 300, but progress is slow because the unit is new. Little things -- such as where a counseling session will be held -- can delay things for days.

Each detective -- Engle, Little, Angelo Musicaro and Tim Ball -- is assigned to a specific region of the county. They pore over incident reports, arrest paperwork and court documents to find children who might be a good fit for the program. But participation is not mandatory, and in some cases parents have refused to allow their children to participate.

"It's a voluntary thing," Musicaro said. "We can't kick in the door, grab the kids and send them to counseling."

Schreck and his detectives are very aware that their unit is the antithesis of traditional law enforcement: They do not arrest people.

Instead, they try to help children by doing simple things. Talking to a teen that has just hit his little brother. Getting a boy to go to school and do his homework. Putting Christmas dinner on the table of a hungry family.

Having an officer perform duties that fall into the realm of social work is unusual, the detectives admit. But they say the K.I.D.S. unit is just another aspect of community oriented policing -- a law enforcement philosophy that allows officers to be more visible and approachable to citizens in hopes of preventing crime. Detectives in the K.I.D.S. unit also talk to other officers, social workers and community groups about the need for early intervention in childrens' lives.

The detectives work with a team of people -- counselors, teachers, local domestic violence groups and the Department of Juvenile Justice -- to help each child. Goals are set, and bad behavior is targeted. Each quarter, the deputy and the team must complete a review of the child's progress, behavior and school work.

All this, in hopes of breaking the cycle of domestic violence.

Experts say that a majority of children who witness domestic violence in the home will grow up to carry abuse into their own relationships. And kids who witness domestic violence have an increased risk for drug abuse, alcoholism and criminal behavior.

"Law enforcement knows the ingredients of a criminal," Musicaro said. "Our job is to take out some of the ingredients."

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