EVERETT - Troubled by recent severe beatings of children, Snohomish County law-enforcement agencies and Child Protective Services workers have reached an agreement they hope will dramatically speed up investigation of abuse complaints.
Beginning last week, the four CPS offices in the county gradually began referring calls about possible physical abuse to 911 dispatchers for contact by patrol officers. This marks the first time in the state, according to CPS officials, that non-emergency abuse allegations received police attention the same day.
"This is to make a routine so we don't have a 12-year-old lying in a vegetable state when maybe we had a neighbor saying there was something going on next door, but had no evidence," said Sgt. Dan Howard, head of the Snohomish County sheriff's crimes-against-children unit.
Twelve-year-old Matthew Parsons remains comatose in critical condition at Providence Hospital in Everett after being found Sept. 16 at his south Everett home, unconscious with severe head injuries and bruises. His father, Charles Parsons, and Parsons' girlfriend, Melody Martin, have been charged with second-degree assault.
Until the new agreement, CPS operators would screen calls, notifying 911 only in emergency cases. Otherwise, if there was evidence of possible abuse - a bruise on a child's face, for example - but nothing else to indicate an emergency, CPS would write a letter to the police agency detailing the case and asking detectives to investigate, meanwhile following up on the call with their own caseworkers.
More often than not, said Howard, detectives would review the referral, then write back to CPS, saying the crime appeared to be perhaps a misdemeanor assault and would have to take a back seat to felony cases. When detectives did investigate, physical evidence, such as bruises, had disappeared.
As a result, cases may have fallen through the cracks, he said.
Authorities say Matthew Parsons wasn't one of those cases. Police say they can find no record of contact with his family prior to finding him unconscious at his home.
Still, Matthew calls to mind other children, such as 3-year-old Eli Creekmore of Everett, whose 1986 death set off a public outcry and legislative changes. The boy was kicked to death by his father, a parolee from a Kansas prison, after CPS removed the boy from his home several times, then returned him. More recently, Kayla Erlandson, 2, of the Bothell area died of a head injury and burns; her mother has been charged with second-degree murder.
The new program will formally go into effect throughout the county after officers receive training over the next several months.
CPS administrators hope a quick response by a uniformed officer will jolt parents - some of whom are perhaps just starting to hit their children - into the realization that abuse is a crime.
"It sends a different message to the family," said John George, regional administrator for the state Division of Children and Family Services, of which CPS is a part.
The Snohomish County sheriff's office expects the caseload will add about 60 extra calls a month for the department's 90 deputies.
"What I see happening is a bigger crunch on patrol, but it's probably a wise move," said Mountlake Terrace Police Chief John Turner.
Everett police Lt. Mike Hammond estimated his department would receive five to 10 extra calls a week. "We feel it's pretty important," he said.
"It does establish that abusing a child is a crime," said Bob McClintock, Everett CPS supervisor.
Caseworkers are overloaded, he said. In Everett, each is handling 40 to 65 cases at a time, when 18 is considered optimum by state policy, but the officers' investigation would make case management more efficient.