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Shawn Vestal: Explanations for letting man accused of ‘child torture’ off the hook aren’t a good excuse

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 2, 2019

If Taliferro Williams can’t be charged with child abuse, who on earth can?

Prosecutor Larry Haskell released a detailed explanation Thursday for his office’s decision not to file criminal charges against Williams, a man with an astonishing and appalling history of credible reports of abusing his three children in 2015 and 2016.

Haskell lays out the reasoning for concluding the case could not be successfully prosecuted, most of which boil down to the fact that it’s very hard to prove the abuse beyond a reasonable doubt without witnesses. But it doesn’t get any easier to do that when you wait three years to really dig into the matter, as the prosecutor’s office did in this case.

And the conditions in which the children were found by deputies in 2016 makes it very, very difficult to believe – as a layman, anyway – that an aggressive investigation and prosecution undertaken right then could not have produced a strong case of both neglect and abuse.

Now that the statute of limitations has passed and Williams’ freedom from consequences here is assured, a harsh moral judgment remains: The people and organizations charged with protecting children in this community, for a variety of reasons, completely failed to hold Williams accountable for abusing these kids at a level a nurse once deemed “child torture.”

Before the case reached the criminal justice system, state social workers spent an inexplicable series of months in 2015 receiving, then failing to take action on, seriously alarming reports about Williams’ treatment of his three children.

These reports were numerous and appalling, according to the records in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the children against the state Department of Social and Health Services. Neighbors called repeatedly to say Williams had hit the kids. They saw bruises and injuries, heard crying and yelling. Social workers were told that Williams gouged the children’s eyes and bit them repeatedly. That he ripped hair from their scalp. Left them in diapers until they bled. Refused to get them medical care.

On and on and on and on.

After a number of thwarted attempts to intervene, DSHS employees met with Williams in January 2016. At that meeting, according to the lawsuit, Williams refused to let social workers examine the kids, yelled at them and accused the agency of trying to ruin his life, and threatened to take off with the kids if they didn’t leave him alone.

After that meeting, a DSHS risk manager determined that there wasn’t enough concern for the children’s safety to get the courts involved. She advised a case worker to simply ask Williams to take the kids to the doctor, “and to close the investigation if he refused.”

Williams refused.

DSHS closed the investigation.

Other reports followed. Horrifying stuff. DSHS employees would knock on Williams’ door, and, when he didn’t answer, they seemed to do little else. They did not seek court intervention to get those kids away from him. It’s hard to imagine a case that called for it more.

Not until sheriff’s deputies, responding to a report that Williams had assaulted his mother, entered his apartment with a search warrant on July 30, 2016, were the children placed in protective state custody. Williams had fled when the deputies showed up, leaving the three children alone.

The sheriff’s report detailed severe physical abuse suffered by all three children. A 4-year-old girl had 18 visible injuries, including severe bruising and several bite marks. A 3-year-old boy was “completely covered in bruises.” He had two large, untreated cuts on the top of his head, and a spiral fracture to his tibia. Williams, incredibly, had “splinted” this injury with a Pringles can. An 15-month-old boy suffered scarring on his corneas, consistent with reports of eye-gouging.

A pediatric nurse examined the children, and her evaluation was included in the report. The oldest girl told her Williams had been abusing all the kids. The nurse concluded that the girl had likely been choked, punched in the chest, kicked in the thigh and bitten on the fingers. Her report said: “Repeated blows, kicks, choking and biting are sadistic in nature, meaning to cause the child substantial and ongoing pain. This type of abuse meets the criteria for child torture.”

That was in early August 2016. Three years ago. This week, we learned that while that type of abuse met this nurse’s criteria for child torture, it does not mean that prosecutors believe they can hold Williams criminally accountable.

Williams had faced a series of other charges in the 2016 incident, including assaulting an adult, for which he served a 17-month sentence. The child abuse portion of the case had remained open, and prosecutors were asked by the sheriff’s office to revisit the case in April. After a review, prosecutor Mark Cipolla declined to file charges.

Haskell issued a three-page statement Thursday afternoon, addressing the decision. I can’t speak to the quality of the legal analysis in this case, but he deserves credit for providing at least some public rationale. Prosecutors have to meet a high burden of proof, and if they can’t do that, there’s no point in simply wishing for a conviction.

But it remains inexplicable how every adult, every organization, every institution meant to protect children and hold Williams accountable could have blown this so badly. How the reports to social service workers somehow never rose to the level of asking a judge to get those kids out of the home. How the case was left on the prosecutorial sidelines for three years, at which time it was deemed unchargable. How the stomach-churning things that happened to those children were simply subsumed by bureaucratic priorities and systemic prerogatives and legal rationales.

There are plenty of explanations. But not one good excuse.