News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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December 8, 2012

Protocol in abuse case under question

TERRE HAUTE — Terre Haute Police Chief John Plasse said he does not believe the children of Larry or Nikki Russell were in danger on the May 25 evening that Larry Russell was arrested for domestic battery in the presence of a child.

“If we had seen any signs that those kids were in danger, we would have contacted DCS,” Plasse told the Tribune-Star on Friday, as scrutiny continues for the former foster parents arrested after three of their children were allegedly bound with ropes and duct tape and deprived of food and water.

The Department of Child Services has indicated that the Terre Haute Police Department did not follow a domestic violence protocol that calls for DCS to be notified if a child is present during a domestic violence incident in which drugs or weapons are found in the home. A .22-caliber handgun was seized from the Russell residence on the evening of the domestic battery incident.

“We have no record to confirm that we received a call from local law enforcement,” DCS spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland told the Tribune-Star. “We do not have a record of receiving a call from THPD, so they did not contact us.”

McFarland said that even when incidents are reported to the local DCS office by police, a record is made of that information.

Plasse told the Tribune-Star on Friday that in July 2011 he did sign a protocol, which states as its purpose to “enhance the response to domestic violence incidents when children are present in the house or a situation has arisen where the risk for family violence has been identified.”

The protocol has also been signed by representatives of the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department, West Terre Haute Police and Indiana State University Police.

Plasse said that he was unaware that the protocol was not being followed by THPD officers, and steps are now being taken to ensure that the child neglect hotline — 1-800-800-5556 — is notified of all cases meeting the criteria in the protocol.

In the past, officers have notified local DCS caseworkers directly whenever the officers think a situation involving a child needs to be investigated, Plasse said, and that will likely still continue as well.

The police chief said he first learned that the May incident involving the Russells had not been reported to DCS after being contacted by Indianapolis media asking if the reporting protocol had been followed. Plasse said he has not been contacted by DCS since the well-publicized Nov. 23 arrest of the Russells to be asked why the protocol was not followed in May.

“That’s what gets me,” Plasse said. “If there’s been problems with not following protocol, why weren’t we contacted? If I had a problem with any agency, I would call the agency, not contact the media.”

McFarland stated that Indianapolis media contacted DCS last week to ask if DCS was aware of the May domestic violence incident. Prior to that, DCS was unaware of the incident, she said.

Plasse characterized a good working relationship in the past between THPD and DCS.

“Locally, we’re good. We’ve never had any issues,” he noted, saying that police officers regularly receive training from DCS on handling child abuse and neglect cases.

McFarland agreed that the working relationship with Terre Haute Police has been a good one.

In the case of the Russell incident in May, Plasse told the Tribune-Star that he personally went to the Russell home that evening after seeing police unit lights in his own neighborhood. Plasse said he even talked to a 13-year-old child of the Russells, and the boy did not indicate that any abuse or neglect was ongoing in the home at that time.

“He didn’t act afraid or anything,” Plasse said of the teen, who was standing outside the home while police investigated the incident inside the dwelling. The teen was among the four children at the home when a domestic violence incident involving gunshots was reported to police.

Upon entering the home that evening, police arrested Larry Russell for domestic battery and transported him to the Vigo County Jail. Police also located a .22-caliber handgun in the pocket of a pair of pants in a bedroom, according to a police incident report, and that gun was confiscated. The weapon remains in evidence at THPD, Plasse said.

With both Larry Russell and the gun removed from the home, police believed there was no continued threat to the children at that time, Plasse said, adding that officers saw no signs that any of the five children living in the home were being abused.

The chief said it is the responsibility of the THPD uniform division to notify DCS of any safety concern for children where the risk for family violence has been identified. Officers did not contact DCS about that incident because they did not believe any risk to the children existed at that time.

On Nov. 23, however, THPD returned to the Russell home in the 2600 block of North 12th Street after a thinly clad 17-year-old boy was found wandering shoeless along Third Street. The underweight teen told police he had been starved by his foster parents, tied to a bed with a rope and duct tape, beaten, and locked inside a bedroom. Other children in the home were also being abused, the teen said.

Police verified the boy’s story and arrested the Russells, who have both been charged with six counts of child neglect and five counts of criminal confinement. Nikki faces additional criminal charges.

A trial date of April 29 has been set for Nikki Russell, while Larry Russell has an April 22 trial date. Meanwhile, resolution of the domestic violence case was deferred in September, but the case can still be prosecuted.

Police have said that the Russells adopted four of the children in their home after being their foster parents. The adoption was reportedly finalized in April, and the Russells were no longer foster parents when the domestic violence incident occurred in May.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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