Dayton child abuse probes hurt by inexperience, workloads

Internal investigation after 2-year-old’s death reveals troubles at Care House.

A Dayton Daily News investigation found Dayton police detectives and at least one county assistant prosecutor responsible for examining heinous crimes against children were accused of being inexperienced, felt overworked or lacked standardized training or policies.

This newspaper, using Ohio’s public records laws, obtained an internal police probe into the handling of an investigation of child abuse of a 2-year-old who was killed in 2017 by the same man suspected of abusing him in 2015.

The internal probe showed unanswered messages, missing evidence, incomplete reports or evidence collection and other factors impeded the investigation into the original child abuse allegations.

In January, Dayton police Detective Justin C.W. Hayes was asked by his commander to identify any other case in which police may have been “neglectful” and that resulted in the death of a child.

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Hayes responded he was not aware of any cases but suggested a thorough audit and mentioned that the civil liability could be “noteworthy” if a new standard of culpability was applied to members of the groups that investigate child safety and welfare cases.

“In layman’s terms: Nobody wants to see a child die, we have no noteworthy policies or training protocol in place, and we’ve had a number of inexperienced detectives assigned these type of cases over the years,” wrote Hayes in a Jan. 26 message to police Major Brian Johns.

Hayes was transferred from the Violent Offenders Unit to West Patrol Operations a month after sending the message, which also read, “I have zero interest or intent in participating or being accused of participating in a cover-up, conspiracy, or collusion on this or any other matter; please let me know if I can help, and I will do my best to assist in a way that is above reproach.”

Johns wrote that the transfer was because of Hayes’ “pattern of conduct that demonstrates the inability to work in a cooperative manner with key partners of the Dayton Police Department.”

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Of Hayes’ quote, Dayton police Chief Richard Biehl said: “The context in which this comment was made/written is unclear. The only reasonable interpretation is that it refers to the Brayden Ferguson case.”

Hayes did not respond to a request for comment.

‘Processes reviewed and updated’

In hundreds of pages of interviews with police officers, prosecutors and other workers at CARE House — a multi-jurisdictional team at Dayton Children’s Hospital that investigates abuse cases — those interviewed complained of a lack of resources and conflicts undermining their work.

Officials say additional resources have since been allotted and changes have been made at CARE (Collaboration, Advocacy, Response and Education) House.

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In a statement, Biehl said an additional detective was assigned in August 2017. He also said administrative reviews of Violent Crimes Bureau cases has been on individual and organizational performance.

“All investigative processes were reviewed and updated where necessary,” Biehl said. “This review included case management, overall work flow and disposition entries.”

Hayes’ supervisor, Sgt. Monica Evans, resigned in early June.

Biehl wrote that no disciplinary action was initiated against Evans, that there was “no pending inquiry into her performance or role as a member of the Dayton Police Department, and no discipline was rendered in this or other related matters.”

Johns was on paid administrative leave for several weeks this year, according to his time cards. Neither the city nor Dayton police have explained his absence or any connection to any specific case. A request for Evans’ resignation letter has not been fulfilled by the city of Dayton.

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Nicholson questioned Ferguson probe

This newspaper previously reported that the case of 2-year-old Brayden Ferguson was a failure at many levels. The toddler was killed in February 2017 by Ryan “Luke” St. John, who was suspected of assaulting him 15 months earlier. A judge sentenced St. John to 18 years to life in prison in May.

The Dayton Police Department’s Professional Standards Bureau (PSB), commonly referred to as internal affairs, released its investigation after the Daily News report.

The 2015 abuse case, which was initiated at CARE House, did not result in criminal charges. Last year, after Ferguson’s death, the lead investigator, Detective Lindsey Dulaney, was found guilty of multiple administrative violations for allegedly not properly investigating the original case.

Libby Nicholson, executive director of CARE House since its opening two decades ago, sees the Ferguson case as an institutional failure – especially at the investigative level, according to internal police records. CARE House is the advocacy center for child victims of abuse and neglect.

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“This case is an example of the specialized investigations that are done by those assigned to CARE House,” Nicholson is quoted in a Dayton police internal affairs report. “I have questioned why an inexperienced police officer, with just over a year on the department and virtually no training in child abuse investigations, would have been assigned to this unit.”

Dulaney contends that her investigation was sufficient given the circumstances, but that she wished she had been given training when she took on her new role.

‘Nobody said here’s what you need to do’

During an administrative hearing in January, Dulaney faulted the police department for not having a standard or policies for detective practices.

Dayton police and the prosecutor’s office said they have changed policies or increased resources to CARE House since the first Ferguson investigation.

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Dulaney had a rapid ascension in the police department.

She was promoted to a detective assigned in the Special Victims Unit in September 2014, just 17 months after becoming a police officer. Five months later, she was assigned to CARE House.

But an internal affairs report quotes Dulaney as saying she didn’t feel like she had adequate instruction for the CARE House job. She started in March 2015, and St. John’s first alleged assault of Brayden took place in November 2015.

“Nobody said ‘Here’s what you need to do and this is all the training,’ ” Dulaney told investigators. “I was trying to figure this out on my own, and so at the time I thought I was doing a pretty good investigation.”

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‘No written policy’ after presentation

Dulaney said the quality of officers’ training depends on whether their peers are willing to take time to assist and share their knowledge.

Dulaney claims when she came aboard at CARE House, a veteran detective refused to help teach her, saying she was too busy. The veteran detective strongly denies that.

“We’re entrusted to use good judgment, our own moral compass and integrity as we subjectively evaluate each investigation,” Dulaney said during her administrative hearing.

She added, “We have no written policy indicating how any case should be handled before, during or after presentation to the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office.”

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By her own admission, Dulaney didn’t fully complete the “to-do list” given to her by then Montgomery County assistant prosecutor Emily Sluk in the Ferguson abuse case.

Dulaney admitted she didn’t collect evidence that may have been useful, didn’t log anything into the computer system for nearly a year and that either she or Sluk lost the only DVD with the interview with St. John.

‘Whole filing process needs to change’

Dulaney didn’t back up the DVD per custom and didn’t ask for help on the case from Evans, her boss.

However, Dulaney said she felt there was enough evidence to charge Ferguson — grading her effort a 6 or a 7 on a scale of 10 — but the prosecutor refused to proceed.

When asked about the investigation, Biehl said in a statement: “The investigation and subsequent discipline speaks to the quality, or lack thereof, of the investigation.”

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Sluk, who now works at the Gounaris Abboud law firm as a family law attorney, declined comment on the internal probe and the Ferguson case.

Sluk was an experienced attorney when she was named to the prosecutor’s Child Abuse Bureau in August 2015. Sluk started at the office in 2008 and, other than 14 months in Miami County, Sluk had previously worked juvenile cases and as a criminal docket attorney.

In an Aug. 29, 2016, email exchange with Dulaney that was part of the internal report, Sluk admitted to struggling with her caseload.

After Dulaney wrote, “Total fail on my part on this one,” Sluk responded: “I was so new and let it sit too long. This whole filing process needs to change, and that is on me. I just don’t know what to do differently.”

‘On an island by yourself’

In an interview with investigators, Sluk expressed frustration with Dulaney not following her to-do list and said she refused the child abuse case because the evidence just got too old.

“Had (Dulaney) gone back and in November of 2015 and done all this, it might have been a different result. I don’t know,” she said. “But I know that I knew she can’t go back and do all that stuff almost a year later.”

This wasn’t an isolated incident when it came to children’s cases, though. Sluk said she frequently had issues with not getting responses to follow-up requests in investigations.

“We’re people so, you get busy and something new comes in and something else gets moved over and oftentimes at the CARE House you have multiple fires burning, and sometimes the next day the fire’s bigger than the one that’s currently burning,” she said.

Sluk said she didn’t have support staff like the main prosecutor’s office, and that made it hard to keep track of her open cases, she said.

“It was quite frankly because they didn’t staff us the way they should have staffed us,” she told police internal affairs investigators. “You’re kind of out there on an island by yourself.”

Case load wears on cops, prosecutors

Montgomery County Prosecutor Mat Heck Jr. said his Child Abuse Bureau (CAB) assistant prosecuting attorneys (APAs) review from 100 to 135 cases per year. He said two attorneys are the norm, but budget cuts years ago meant a brief period with just one prosecutor.

“For APAs assigned to CAB, local and national training concerning the prosecution of child abuse is not only provided, but is encouraged, depending on available resources,” Heck said.

Heck said that in early 2015, his office created and presented to law enforcement a Child Abuse Supplemental filing sheet to aid them by providing a checklist of items to be addressed or collected in child abuse investigations.

An investigator asked Evans why all the detectives were behind at the CARE House.

“I think it’s the type of investigations,” Evans responded, “the workload that comes with it, the difficulty in the dealings with all the different agencies they have to deal with in their investigations … and the case load among, at the time, three detectives.”

In an interview with investigators, Nicholson said now retired Dayton police Maj. Chris Williams told her about Dulaney something to the effect of, “don’t let her inexperience fool you” and that Dulaney was the best Dayton police had to offer.

Williams didn’t answer questions about his opinion of Dulaney or his conversations with Nicholson, but he did provide a statement in which he said detectives sometimes internalize child victim probes.

“These cases often have no room for error, even though the detectives and supervisors who work these cases are human beings,” Williams said. “Serious life events can impact the efficiency of any operation, including those working in investigations. The detectives’ dedication to these cases has been outstanding, often to their own personal detriment.”

A resource for 10,000 kids

Nicholson said Williams, now the director of operations of the Miami Valley Crime Lab, told her it was in her best interest not to question him. Nicholson did not elaborate about that apparent warning, according to the internal affairs report.

Biehl said Williams retired before the internal investigation began, so there was no double checking of Nicholson’s claims that Williams intimidated Nicholson.

Asked if any possible internal investigation into his actions factored into his retirement, Williams said no: “I was offered a ’once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity to serve in another organization.”

Asked to comment about her opinion in the internal affairs report, Nicholson responded with a statement that said, in part, that CARE House has been a resource for nearly 10,000 children in Montgomery County.

“It is a devastating tragedy any time abuse claims the life of a child,” Nicholson wrote. “At CARE House there is a group of dedicated professionals committed to protecting children and holding offenders accountable.”


DIGGING DEEPER

The death of 2-year-old Brayden Ferguson — at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend who was accused of harming the toddler 15 months earlier — spurred this news organization to investigate why the first case didn’t result in charges.

We covered Ryan “Luke” St. John’s murder trial, the secretive court documents not available to the public, interviewed the boy’s foster mother, the defendant’s father and numerous officials to discover what happened.

The Dayton Daily News has made dozens of public records — many of which have not been fulfilled by police or the city weeks and months later — and discovered documents that showed that infighting, questions about training and policy, lost evidence and detectives feeling overworked.