CHILDREN IN FIRE INVESTIGATION
It was a sunny Saturday during Labor Day weekend in 1988. About 11:30 a m., Ursula Evans walked across a driveway to an adjacent apartment. She asked a neighbor, who was taking a bath, to “watch my door.” She told the neighbor that she was going to the grocery and that her children were in the apartment. Evans left a key to the apartment.
Evans and a girlfriend then left the apartment complex and went to a neighborhood party some blocks away. Her husband, Albert, had arrived at the party about 20 minutes earlier.
About 1:45 p.m., 26-year-old Mark Cheatham and some of his friends were talking under a tree about 50 feet from the apartment when they saw smoke coming from around the door and windows of the apartment. They tried to enter, but the apartment was locked. Cheatham and his friends broke open the door, and a 4-year-old child came running out.
Cheatham heard another child crying in the apartment. He crawled through the smoke and found a 2year-old girl in the doorway to the bedroom. She w’as too hot to touch, so Cheatham wrapped her in a sheet, took her out of the apartment, and handed her to arriving Orlando (FL) Fire Department personnel. The 2year-old girl had burns over 80 to 90 percent of her body. She died three days later.
Firefighters extinguished the fire, which was centered in the bedroom of the block apartment. On the bed they found the body of a 9-month-old boy.
An investigation by the Orlando Fire Department’s Arson/Bomb Squad and a Youth Division investigator from the Orlando Police Department came to the following conclusions:
- The fire was accidental. It was set on or under a bed, most probably by the 4-year-old boy playing with a lighter.
- The three children had been locked in their apartment by their mother. None of the children were big enough to unlock and open the door.
- The fire had been burning for a substantial period of time. Neighbors were nearby but we re not aware of the fire because the required smoke
- detector in the dwelling had no battery.
- Neighbors said that the mother and father had left the children unattended for substantial periods of time in the past.
A CASE OF ABUSE?
Out of this tragic case came a unique legal theory that grabbed the local headlines for months to come: Both the mother and father were charged with two counts of thirddegree murder, two counts of manslaughter, and three counts of felony child abuse. The surviving children in the household (two others were not home at the time of the fire) immediately were removed by the State Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.
Often such cases are viewed as an unfortunate accident, but in this case fire and police investigators determined that the parents’ lack of supervision and attitude of indifference contributed to the children’s deaths.
Youth investigators took the lead in the case because they were most familiar with cases involving child abuse and neglect. A female youth investigator had been called to the scene and had gained the confidence of the 4-year-old survivor. The boy finally explained how the fire had started and described his attempts to get out.
The interview’ was audiotaped and served as a strong piece of evidence in the case. The youth investigator’s interviewing techniques proved to be critical, because the boy had refused to talk to uniformed fire investigators and when questioned again the following day by the youth investigator, he refused to talk.
Another key element of the case was that the abandonment was not a single or isolated incident but rather part of a continuing pattern of conduct by the parents. This is where community involvement came into play, since neighbors gave statements verifying the parents’ misconduct.
With the statement of the child and those of witnesses, investigators, and neighbors, the case was presented to the local state attorney’s office for possible prosecution. Although investigators knew what had happened, it still was not clear that the parents’ inattention was, indeed, a violation of Florida law—mainly because there was no precedent. After much discussion, the assistant state attorney agreed to take the case forward, charting new legal ground in the area of child abuse.
Both parents were arrested, and both pleaded guilty to various charges. Ursula Evans pleaded no contest to two counts of third-degree murder. The other charges were dropped. She was sentenced to one year community control (similar to probation but without going to jail first) followed by nine years probation, ordered to take parenting classes every two years and not to consume alcohol or other controlled substances, and required to undergo substance screening and counseling and obey all dependency orders.
Albert Evans pleaded guilty to one count of felony child abuse and one misdemeanor count of endangering the health of a child. He was sentenced to five years probation and ordered to attend substance abuse counseling and testing and parenting classes.
What made the convictions possible was the cooperation of the fire and police investigators and the local state attorney’s office, as well as the support of the community. All agreed that while the fire was accidental, the continuing pattern of neglect could constitute child abuse.
About nine months later, another case arose where a woman left her 16month-old daughter alone in an apartment. A fire broke out from a pot on the stove, and a neighbor rescued the girl. Again, Orlando fire and police investigators worked together. They learned that the woman previously had been warned by her mother and neighbors not to leave the child unattended. She was charged with aggravated child abuse and pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of causing a child to become dependent. She was sentenced to a 30-day jail term, which was suspended, and placed on one year’s probation.
Both cases were well-publicized in the local media. The message was clear: Parents will be held responsible for properly supervising their children, and if a continuing pattern of inattention develops, parents can be prosecuted.
In child abuse cases, the statements of the children often are critical. Here are some suggestions to help fire investigators obtain needed evidence.
- The interviewer must set himself or herself apart from the internal feelings and emotions generated by the act committed against the child. Seeing children killed or injured may cause anger and frustration on the part of the investigator. These feelings must be set aside before a productive interview can proceed.
- If possible, engage the services of a trained youth investigator. The investigator may be more familiar with interviewing techniques that are successful with children.
- The location of the interview is critical. The interview should take place in as nonthreatening an environment as possible. Children often associate hospitals with illness and pain, or police stations with jail. The interview of the 4-year-old in the first case
- took place in the bedroom of a nearby apartment.
- While location is important, time also is of the essence. The child should be interviewed as promptly as the situation allows. After a few hours, many children block out traumatic events as a defense mechanism.
- Not only should the environment be nonthreatening, but the interviewer must be as nonthreatening as possible. The interviewer may wish to sit on the floor with the child. A uniform may be threatening to some children, and the smell of smoke on an investigator’s clothing may alarm a child recently rescued from a fire.
- Tape the interview in some form or fashion. Often the first interview will be the only interview you get, so it is important to have a record.
- If the parents are not likely to be charged, they should work with the investigator in the initial stages of the interview, encouraging the child to participate. The parents should then leave while the investigator questions the child. Sometimes the parents can inadvertently color the interview if present. If the parent is a suspect, he or she should be excluded from the start—many parents can directly or indirectly threaten the children if present under those circumstances.
- Children will relate critical situations in their own terms. It is important to remember that you are dealing with a child—so gear the questioning to that level. You also must give the child a way out. Often children under stress will try to change the subject or stop talking altogether when discussing painful experiences. Allow the child to change the conversation, and then move back to that subject later in the interview. The child must feel in control.
- Understand that those who abusechildren often make the children feel responsible for the abusive situation. Interviewers must understand that abused children often are lonely and feel guilty about their situation. Interviewers may need to look beyond the initial response of denial if the investigator feels die victim is withholding valuable information.