SVU Episode #13-16: Child’s Welfare

Recap:  Tonight’s episode featured two troubling but realistic storylines, both based on real life cases.
In the first, we see a young woman giving birth to a child in a terrifying dungeon-like place.  The baby boy is left in a box outside a church.  DNA testing reveals that the mother is a 16 year old girl who was abducted three years ago.  At the time of her abduction, she was bike-riding with her father, who was (unfairly) named as the prime suspect.  The detectives soon discover another baby boy, abandoned 3 years ago, who shares the same paternal DNA as the first child.
Our good detectives talk to the 3-year-old’s adoptive parents, who relay a story about a young woman who ran up to them in the park and claimed she was the child’s mother.  (The young woman was especially convinced when she picked up child’s hat and recognized his smell.)  Our detectives find the young woman at a soup kitchen, and she tells them about the male/female couple who abducted her 4 years ago.  They made her call them “Mommy” and “Daddy.”  The man raped her repeatedly; she got pregnant; she had a baby boy.  The man said “No boys in this house.” They gave the baby away, and soon released her after she sobbed too much as a result.
The detectives soon find that “Mommy” is a nurse at a nearby hospital.  Amanda ambushes her with questions, but it’s Nick’s sexy but understanding little smile that makes her break down and confess.  (I can’t blame her.   I’ll bet I’d confesss any crimes I committed to get one of Detective Amaro’s heart-stopping little half-grins.)  The detectives raid the nasty dungeon (which turns out to be the boiler room of an apartment building), find “Daddy,” and arrest him.  They also find the missing girl– and her 2-year-old daughter.
In the second storyline, Olivia tries to help her half-brother, Simon, after he loses his children in the child protection system as a result of a routine traffic stop.  Simon rolled through a stop sign, was pulled over, and the cop found a marijuana joint in his pocket.  Simon was arrested for possession, and his family referred to the Administration for Child Services.  One of his kids had a bruise on the forehead (Simon says they were just playing), which raises alarm bells.  ACS removes the children and places them in foster care.
Olivia gets Andre Braugher to defend Simon.  Andre promptly gets the possession charge dropped.  But the child-protection judge keeps the kids in the foster-care system.  Andre says this is the result of a racist system – marijuana cases lead to a disproportionate number of black and brown families losing their kids.  He’s going to forge a class action.
But Simon can’t wait for the legal system.   He steals the kids from foster care, and barely gets over a bridge before he’s once again arrested, now on felony kidnapping charges.  Eventually, the charges are dropped, but not before Andre sagely notes that Simon will not be a good lead plaintiff in his marijuana-profiling class action.  In the end, Simon’s fiancee breaks up with him in order to maintain custody of her children.  His kidnapping charges are pled down to a misdemeanor, but he’s lost his parental rights for the next three years.
Verdict: A-
What they got right: The first storyline was an urban version of the Jaycee Lee Dugard case.  Jaycee was 11 years old and walking to her bus stop when Phillip Garrido and his wife drove up, tazed her with a stun-gun, snatched her, and drove away.  Jaycee’s stepfather, the last person to see her, was initially (and unfairly) a suspect.  (Like the mom tonight, Jaycee’s mother ended up divorcing him.)  Garrido handcuffed the girl in a backyard shed, and repeatedly raped her.  She eventually bore two baby daughters by him.  After 18 years in captivity, Jaycee and her daughters were found.  The most stunning part of the story to me is that Garrido was on probation for his earlier rape, and was being supervised by the feds the whole time.  Dozens of probation officers visited his house – and no one found the girl or the two babies living in the shed in the backyard.  Jaycee wrote a remarkable nonfiction book about her experience.
A fictional book about a similar story is Emma Donaghue’s “Room.”  It is one of the best books I’ve read in years.  I highly recommend it.
There’s been some controversy lately about “marijuana profiling.”  The LA Times recently noted that although young white adults use marijuana at a rate higher than their black peers, “police in California’s biggest cities arrest blacks for possession at four, five and even 13 times the rate of whites.”  And in New York, there has been an outcry against the practice of removing children from their parents after a small amount of marijuana is found on the parents.  This summer, the New York Times said:
“Hundreds of New Yorkers who have been caught with small amounts of marijuana, or who have simply admitted to using it, have become ensnared in civil child neglect cases in recent years, though they did not face even the least of criminal charges, according to city records and defense lawyers. A small number of parents in these cases have even lost custody of their children.”
The Times even mentions a man who, like Simon, possessed marijuana because he had toothache and needed to regain his appetite.
Another thing this episode got right was how hard it is to strike the right balance between protecting kids and interfering with parental rights.  In real life, attitudes tend to swing on a wide pendulum depending on the latest tragedy.  In DC, the pendulum swung far to caution after a woman named Banita Jacks killed her three children and left their bodies to rot and disentegrate on their beds for months.  DC’s child protective services was blamed for not stepping in earlier, despite red flags.  In the wake of that tragedy, an apparently nice and innocent family had their 8-month-old twins taken away after one of them bumped her head on the floor.  That family exhausted their life savings to get their kids back.
I liked that “Daddy” was caught after being shot in the foot while shooting at rats.  This method of pest control is popular in some urban neighborhoods, and often leads to this type of injury.  I don’t recommend it.
I also liked the quick but poignant fact that the young mother recognized her baby by his smell.  There have been studies showing that in blind tests, mothers can identify their own children by smell.   On a related note, mothers tend to prefer the smell of their own babies’ poop.   I prefer fresh flowers myself.
Finally, I smiled when Andre dryly noted that Simon would not be a good lead plaintiff in the marijuana-profiling class action Andre was building.  Class actions are lawsuits where a number of similarly-affected parties join together to bring suit against a common adversary.  Usually, there is a named plaintiff who is supposed to represent the class.  Good attorneys are picky about who their lead plaintiff will be – it can frame the entire debate.  Simon, with his bail-jumping and kidnapping, was not a poster boy for reform. Perhaps the best lead plaintiff ever was the couple at the heart of the anti-miscegenation case of Loving v. Virginia.   Mildren and Richard Loving were a mixed race couple who married each other despite Virginia’s prohibition on “mixing of the races.” A few weeks after their wedding, the police invaded their home.  The Lovings were forced to leave the state of Virginia, but took their case to the ACLU and all the way to the Supreme Court.  Could there have been a better-named couple to represent all that their case stood for?
What they got wrong:
I love Andre Braugher, but I was annoyed by his character’s cross-examination.  He kept making snarky points, and when they were objected to, he would quickly say, “Withdrawn!”  Not a good strategy.  He’s pretty much announcing that he’s making all these inappropriate statements just to make them, despite the fact that he’s violating the court’s rules.  This is particularly bad strategy where the fact-finder is a seasoned judge who can tell what’s going on, not a wide-eyed jury that will be hoodwinked by the tactics.
The real-life marijuana-profiling cases are more nuanced than the one on tonight’s show.  For example, the real-life dental-pains guy was living in a homeless shelter.  I think there’s a decent argument that a parent who’s homeless and taking drugs puts a child in a precarious position.  In another real life case, the police found marijuana in one woman’s house while conducting a search warrant because “they believed drugs were being sold there.”  It’s one thing to take the occasional toke.  It’s another to be a suspected drug dealer, running your business out of your apartment.  Simon was more innocent than any of the real-life litigants I’ve read about.
In real life, “Mommy” and “Daddy” wouldn’t have released the girl after she couldn’t stop sobbing about her baby.  They would have killed her.
One more medical nit. When the abandoned baby was in the hospital, Amanda turned to the doctor and said, “We’re gonna need a DNA sample.”  He nodded and walked into the room to get it.  But he didn’t ask whether she wanted hair, blood, a buccal swabbing, or something else.  In real life, DNA samples are usually not obtained by the doctors at all, but by police officers who take a buccal swabbing, that is, they run a Q-tip over the person’s inner cheek.
All in all, I thought this was a smart, interesting episode.  It got me wondering which is a worse parental nightmare: having your child kidnapped by a deranged, dungeon-dwelling psycho, or having your kids taken away by an kafkaesque social services system?  The former is more horror story-ish, but the latter seems more likely and thus somehow more frightening.  What do you think?


  1. James Pollock says

    There was a bit of sexism in this article… the child’s mother and father take the child from the foster care together. Into the justice system they go… mom’s OK with the kids, and gets her custody back forthwith; dad loses his for (at least) 3 years, more likely forever. This is a fair outcome if he kidnapped the kids himself; not so much if they were in it together.

    I kind of lost my willing suspension of disbelief watching Andre’s highly-experienced trial attorney apparently deliberate angering of the judge in a bench hearing. (There’s two kinds of people who don’t like to be called racist… people who aren’t actually racist, and people who are.) I mean, granted he’s primarily a crusading defense attorney, and thus unfamiliar with the nuances of family court… but surely he’s familiar with the concept of trying a case to the bench. Did he figure he was going to have to appeal anyway, so he might as well get the hearing over as quickly as possible so he could get started on the appeal?

    • says

      Hey James,

      I think the custody issue wasn’t so much sexism as the fact that Dad had a prior criminal record and Mom did not. But I agree with your point about Andre calling the judge a racist. Bad tactics — unless, as you suggest, he was just trying to make a larger point without actually caring about the result for his client.

  2. says

    I liked the attention this brought to the NYPD’s practice regarding small amounts of marijuana: the city claims not to arrest anyone for small-time possession unless they display it publicly, but then they consider (as they did here) removing it from ones pocket based on the police’s order “public display.”

    The interrogation of “Mommy” in the hospital also seemed pretty clearly bad to me. If they want to charge her (which I would assume they would), they’re going to have a hard time not getting that thrown out unless the cops lied about it. Between “don’t make us chase us,” “we’re talking now, not at the end of your shift,” and the way they surrounded her, it was pretty clearly a custodial interrogation that would have triggered Miranda.

    Still, I thought it was a very good episode!

  3. Alenna says

    This episode also had similarities to the Elisabeth Fritzl story in Austria – where the girl (starting at the age of 14) was kept captive in the basement for 24 years and actually had 7 children. In that case it was her own father who did the abduction. Really sad and creepy. Makes you wonder how many girls may be out there right now in similar circumstances.

    I really liked this episode, but I wondered why Olivia didn’t try to contact her brother herself for the past 5 years. He was living in NYC and she couldn’t find him? She is a pretty smart detective after all. At least they didn’t throw both parents in prison for 10 years (after the kidnapping) and give Olivia custody of the kids. I was almost expecting that.

    I thought the part where they discovered the connection with the nurse (Magda) was very circumstantial and she seemed overly flaky – didn’t somebody she worked with notice she was a nutcase? She answered all Nick’s questions like a zombie. Must have been Nick’s special smile, like you said. I’m sure police appreciate such cooperative suspects. Wasn’t it a “dumb mistake” that they gave her the phone to call her husband and she (of course) warned him? I wondered at the foreign language she used – it didn’t sound German, but Magda is a German name so maybe it was a nod to the Fritzl case. The girl (Celia?) had a rather strange reaction to a bunch of armed-to-the-teeth NYPD police breaking into her room with guns pointed every-which-way. Maybe it was a result of “brainwashing”, but I would think she might be a little scared and hide or something.

    • says

      Great point about the Fritzl case, Alenna. Such a sick, sad case. I think you’re right, that garbled Germanic warning in the last scene was a nod to that. And yeah, that decision to give her the phone didn’t seem so smart.

      I don’t know about the nurse being so unbelievable, though. It is amazing how often these really scary assailants are viewed as nice, normal people by their neighbors and colleagues. For example, Dennis Rader, the serial rapist/killer who went by the name “BTK” for “Bind, Torture, Kill,” was considered a pillar of his community: a Boy Scout leader, and president of his church.

      • James Pollock says

        It’s not THAT surprising… the killers who look, act, and talk like a killer all the time get caught after their first killing. It’s only the ones who DON’T seem like killers who can get away with it long enough to become serial killers.

  4. Carl N. Brown says

    This is the first place I go after watching L&O SVU for education on the reel v real from someone who knows. Which makes me hate to point out a typo, but the DC case was Banita Hicks.

    • says

      Thanks, Carl! Since I’m a stickler for authenticity, I want my stuff to be as accurate as possible. I have seen Banita Jacks’s name spelled both with an “e” and an “a” — but I think you’re right, the “a” is more common. So I changed it in the post.

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