High risk families entered into police register

PHOTO: Corbis / Scanpix

Neighbours, relatives and teachers alike have become better at letting the police and child welfare know of kids in trouble.

Over 14,000 persons have been entered by police into national at-risk family register, 2,000 of these being children. The chief aim for creating the register is to be as prompt as possible in assisting children endangered by actions of adults.

In a North Tallinn block of flats, a person had recourse to the police about a terrible stench in the apartment next door. Arriving at the scene, the police saw a flat filled with trash; amid cardboard boxes behind a curtain, they discovered a metal bed with a four year old. The kid looked two – and could not walk. The neighbours had never seen the child...

With a sigh, the policemen note: had a neighbour not called to complain about the stink, the kid could have died there with no-one knowing. The police may have had some earlier notices about the family in question, buried in its vast database. 

The case dates five years back and since then the police and child welfare cooperation has improved. As assured by the police officers, such severe cases have become rare.

Even so, both police and child protectors know: however well-developed the system, tragedies can’t totally be prevented. Of an incident just as serious, Postimees was told a couple of years ago by the well-trained child welfare workers in the very Norway.

The latest shock for Estonia’s society was the cruel murder, in Tamsalu, of a 15 year old girl from Saaremaa. Despite repeated earlier recourses to police, the girl was left without timely help.

According to police lieutenant Kati Arumäe, it was the Tamsalu case that proved the last drop – to apply greater scrutiny to people and addresses with repeated signs of danger.  

On basis of notices received by police, over 14,000 people have been identified such as need help or might be dangerous to themselves and others.

«We started compiling the at-risk list last fall; by a computer program on basis of clear criteria, it collects all cases needing acute attention: at least two notices to police within one year; violence, for instance; drug and alcohol addiction; thefts by kids; lost persons; kids running away from homes,» listed Lieut. Arumäe.

«Police will react to every notice; even so, not every case will relate to a long-term problem. With children concerned, the rule is to always react at first instance.»

Up to now, the police was working on a case-based principle; now, it looks at the whole – to better see the big picture. «We did get the picture, before... but it took too long,» added Ms Arumäe.

At times, linking the cases is made difficult by families at risk changing addresses often and the new places lacking information on what happened before.

Now, with a former Tallinn dweller triggers the interest of Valga police, the register will automatically inform them if there have been problems with the person before. Thus, help can come faster.

The police dealing with high risk families admit, however, that a kid in trouble may still not be detected early enough in a new location. That would be especially true with gig cities if they do not get registered in the new dwelling and the neighbours etc do not notify police of a child needing help.

Thankfully, people have started to more often turn to the police, and the police are urging them to be even more active in this – let the specialists assess if a need for intervention is there or not.

Superintendent Ly Kallas related a recent incident of a kindergarten teacher notifying of a child of 5 who showed up with legs beaten all blue. A sad and typical case of a father, abused in childhood, repeated the pattern on his child. Even with the father, police and child welfare had been involved while he was in his childhood years. «With him, it was too late back then – now we are hopeful that we caught on early enough and the entire family will be dealt with,» said Ms Kallas.

From a time more distant, Ms Kallas recalls the terrible case of a granny visiting her daughter and discovering kids (aged 2 and 4) taped to beds. «Even the mouths were taped so they would not scream,» said Ms Kallas.

«The mother was an ordinary woman who’d finished a school, but her partner and father of the children was of a prison background. The family knew no usual violence – rather, it was torture.» The granny called the police and the kids were given to her to raise. «True, the mother left the man and later joined them,» added Ms Kallas.

It’s not the hard cases alone that police and child welfare focus on. Problems may also occur in families where the police are notified when a child is half an hour late from school.

«Not every case demands serious monitoring, but if a kid has broken the law we let the local government child welfare know upon the first instance so they would decide if the child or the family need further attention,» said Police and Border Guard prevention coordinator Pille Luiga.

«High risk families have been identified and now we are investing in cooperation so as to have more frequent home visits by child welfare. And together we see what kind of help the family needs.»

The police officers tell the story of a neighbour who called and said a 1st grader keeps sitting in a block-of-flats staircase, for hours. Turns out: the parents, on the surface an absolutely normal family, did not give the kid a key fearing whoever might enter the apartment along with the child. «They cared more for their things than for the child,» said Ms Kallas.

According to Ms Luiga, helping a family is a long-term work. «There was the family where calls came every month, though there was no direct violence. The father consumed alcohol. Victim support, child welfare and police were together seeking for ways to help,» said Ms Luiga, recalling a positive case.

«The men joined up with Alcoholics Anonymous, the family saw a psychologist, a school psychologist dealt with the child who had developed problems with studies due to the situation at home. Family relations improved, no longer do we have the monthly calls. But that’s lengthy work indeed and people may backslide,» said Ms Luiga, adding that such help is only possible when a family desires to change their life.

Another example by the police: a mother and father came to a drinking party with a 2 year old. They quarrelled and left, leaving the child behind.

Finally, one in the company called the police as they were unable to contact the mother. When the police found the mother, she was totally incapable of understanding what they wanted from her. «All we could do was to take the child to a shelter,» said Ms Luiga.

«These are the saddest stories when a child cannot be given to its legal representatives and the police will have to decide to take it to a shelter or children’s home. Depending on the year, there are 250–300 such cases,» noted Ms Arumäe.

«These decisions are based on threat assessment: sometimes, it’s totally obvious; at other times, things are more complicated and a policeman may err,» she added.

The police say the options to help greatly vary regionally; even so, the differences are levelling out. Yearly, the police sends 10,000 notices to local governments related to families and children; more and more, police officers also ask for feedback about follow-through.

«Years ago, Tallinn had very many children show up who run away from parents in Ida-Viru County; now, child welfare does a good job there and we no longer have dozens of kids ending up here with us,» said Ms Kallas.

«It is important to notice a child in trouble as early as possible – so the trauma would be minimal and the child’s future life as normal as possible,» said Ms Luiga.

Police point out striking differences in attitudes of local governments. Recently, the city of Paldiski did away with its child protection official’s post; it is only a matter of time till the problems will grow even worse.

High risk families and children in police register

High risk persons: 14, 066

•     of these, 1,927 are children

Problematic addresses 3,838, with 284 related to kids

•     of these, 41 percent with over 3 incidents

•     2 percent with over 10 incidents

•    in 5 months, offence proceedings have been initiated with 70 percent of the incidents

In 2013, child protection or social workers got 10,961 police notices on minors (use of tobacco, alcohol, drugs; family violence with child/children present)

Sources: PBGB/PM