Could pilot program have helped in south Mpls. abuse case?

The house where Jerry Lee Curry and Shelia Machelle Wilson lived
The house where Jerry Lee Curry and Shelia Machelle Wilson lived with their family sits on 17th Ave. S. in south Minneapolis on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The abuse and neglect of two developmentally disabled girls outlined in charges against their Minneapolis parents late last month appear to have been happening at the same time police were repeatedly called to the home, according to records.

Over the same time, county children protection workers also took at least two reports of physical and sexual abuse at the home.

But it's unlikely police officers ever knew that — until one of the twins escaped and cops investigated and found "a house of horrors,'' as the prosecutor described it.

Jerry Lee Curry and Sheila Wilson
Jerry Lee Curry, 52, is jailed on charges of rape, assault and stalking. Shelia Machelle Wilson, 48, is being held on three counts of criminal neglect. They are parents of 21-year-old twin daughters who have outlined years of rape, beatings and torture in what one official called a "house of horrors."
Courtesy of Hennepin County Jail

Authorities have charged Jerry Lee Curry, 52, in the rape and assault of his twin daughters, now 21. Their mother, Shelia Machelle Wilson, 48, faces three counts of criminal neglect of her daughters at the couple's home, in the 4200 block of 17th Ave. S. They remain jailed in Hennepin County.

The case illustrates the communication walls that exist between city and county agencies, which are often dealing with similar issues.

But a pilot program, launched in late 2016, in Brooklyn Park aims to change that.

Making connections one case at a time

Police officers routinely notify county protection workers when they suspect abuse or neglect, there is no uniform mechanism to alert officers that a case has been filed in the child protection system.

Now, Brooklyn Park officers get a heads-up when they are about to respond to an address where a child or children may be at risk of harm.

"If an officer is dispatched to any kind of call for service whatsoever ... they get notified by our dispatch that there's a safety plan in place," said Brooklyn Park Police Chief Craig Enevoldsen.

A safety plan is a written agreement between a family with an open child protection case and a caseworker. Such plans often outline what parents can and cannot do in order to maintain custody of their children.

Brooklyn Park Police Chief Craig Enevoldsen
Brooklyn Park Police Craig Enevoldsen's police department is working on a pilot project that allows officers to access some county child protection information.
Brooklyn Park Police Department

Brooklyn Park officers now get the details of those plans from the county as they respond to calls.

The type of action officers take in relation to the safety plan can depend on what they observe. For example, a safety plan may prohibit a family member from being in the home.

"If that's the case, we will call child protection right there from the house and then make a decision based upon that if the child should be removed — we're going to just ask the uncle to leave — whatever the case may be. But at least there's that connection that's made," Enevoldsen said.

If there are no other red flags, the officers will report their findings to child protection, whose workers may decide to follow up with the family later.

Idea born out of increase of abuse cases

Enevoldsen was the only law enforcement official on an oversight committee formed in 2015 to help Hennepin County stem a rising tide of child abuse cases. The committee was preceded by a similar body convened by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, who represents Brooklyn Park served with Enevoldsen on the same 12-member group.

"Part of what we discovered as we have gone through the Child Protection Oversight Committee is the interaction between police and child protection and where it could be better," Opat said.

One barrier to sharing information between city and county government agencies is that the majority of data on children is private.

Opat said he credits Enevoldsen for stepping forward to help find a way to cooperate in a way that's legal and beneficial to both law enforcement and child protection workers.

"What I'm hearing is that both sides are satisfied ... and excited about it," said Opat.

Enevoldsen said he thinks the partnership has been especially beneficial to child protection workers.

"We've called them back with information (and) they said: 'This is great. This is information we would never have had if this wasn't in place,'" Enevoldsen said. It remains unclear what, if anything, Minneapolis officers may have known about the occupants of Curry and Wilson's half-story, blue trimmed home when they responded to more than 50 911 calls over a six-year span.

The police calls, from August 2011 through June 2017, ranged from reports of loud music, domestic abuse, lost or missing children to calls to check the welfare of occupants.

Child protection workers were notified of alleged abuse and neglect at the home at least two times before the most recent case landed them in jail facing criminal charges. In one of the cases, a worker could not substantiate the report. In the other, the case was closed after Wilson successfully completed her case plan.

Minneapolis police have declined to comment on the case. And while Hennepin County officials also won't discuss this case, they have said they take every report seriously.

"This is incredibly hard, complicated work. Our teams care deeply about residents' well-being. After critical incidents, we scrutinize our work to review our decisions and look at where practices or interventions could improve," Jennifer DeCubellis, deputy Hennepin County administrator for Health and Human Services, said in a prepared statement.

Opat wouldn't speculate on whether a Brooklyn Park-style partnership would have helped prevent some of the abuse outlined in the charges against Curry and Wilson.

But he said it appears there was a breakdown in oversight by a lot of different sectors.

"I wonder about the neighbors. I wonder about the extended family. I wonder about the congregation if there's any congregation," Opat said.

"I wonder about our own (child protection) workers if they were called out. I just think there are far too many of these cases where people see it and know something's not right, but maybe never get to the level of feeling like they need to interfere."