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Going beyond duty's call to save a child

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
Whitehall, Ohio police officer Rex Adkins was instrumental in the discovery and rescue of an abused child.
Whitehall, Ohio police officer Rex Adkins was instrumental in the discovery and rescue of an abused child.
  • Bob Greene: What can be done to ensure a locked-up child is noticed and rescued?
  • In Whitehall, Ohio, 20 years ago, police officers found a boy under his parents' bed, he says
  • Only their determination and perseverance enabled them to rescue him, Greene says

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship."

(CNN) -- They remember every moment.

"Something just didn't feel right to me in that place," said Steven Brown, a detective with the Whitehall, Ohio, Police Department.

"I think it was the boy's foot that I saw first," said Dan Wardlow, a sergeant with the department.

"When we pulled him out, it was awful," said Rex Adkins, also a sergeant. "You could tell that he had been subjected to beatings for a very long time. The cuts, the bruises, the signs of old injuries. He was so scared."

I talked with the three Whitehall police officers last week because they represent the answer to a question many readers have been asking.

Two recent columns here have reported on the death in Lake County, Indiana, of 13-year-old Christian Choate. Prosecutors there say that he was forced to live in a locked dog cage by his father, Riley Lowell Choate, and his stepmother, Kimberly Leona Kubina. Both are charged with murder.

Documents released by court officials indicate that child-protection workers were called to the home numerous times over more than a decade, but never found a reason, or took steps, to help Christian. Letters reportedly written by the boy, found after his death, said he wished he knew "why nobody liked him and how he just wanted to be liked by his family ... (he) often wondered when someone, anyone, was going to come check on him and give him food or liquid."

Readers have asked: What can be done to make sure a child who is being locked up and tortured is noticed, and rescued?

The question made me think of those police officers in Whitehall. The work they did one night almost 20 years ago is as inspiring an example of dedicated resolve by officers as I have ever been privileged to cover. Because they cared and did not turn away, they saved a boy's life.

Someone had phoned in a hot line report that a family in a Whitehall mobile home park was brutally abusing one of their sons. The 12-year-old boy allegedly had blackened eyes, was scarred on his face and had a severe speech impediment. Rex Adkins, at the time a young patrol officer, went to the home. No one was there.

He had been told that three children lived in the home, but that only the boy was being tortured. He returned later, and the parents let him in. They introduced him to a girl and a boy; they said these were their only children. The two children seemed healthy, but nervous. They told Adkins that they had no brother.

Adkins left. But he couldn't shake the thought that something was not right. He told some fellow officers. That night, he and four others returned to the trailer.

The parents had turned off the lights and didn't answer the knock. But the officers heard noises inside. They called through the door. No response. They said to the parents: "We have all night."

In fact, the commitment of five officers to the case was a significant strain on the department's resources. Whitehall, at the time, had only 42 police officers on the entire force, spread over three shifts. But if there was a boy in distress inside, these five had decided that they were not going to leave. They said through the door to the parents: If you don't let us in, one of us will go get a search warrant while the rest of us wait here.

They finally were permitted inside. Again, the two children said that they were the only boy and girl who lived there.

Dan Wardlow, a rookie at the time, looked around the residence, in closets, behind furniture. Nothing.

But then he knelt and peered into a drawer beneath a water bed where the parents slept each night.

There in the drawer, amid stored items, was the boy. Wardlow could see his foot.

The officers said that the child was bruised, scarred and filthy. Six of his teeth were chipped. He had a human bite mark on his back. His speech was difficult to understand.

James Stacy, at the time Whitehall's police chief, told me that the child had been beaten virtually since the time he was born. He was the one of the three children who was singled out for the brutality.

"He had never been sent to school," Stacy said. "His life consisted of being beaten in that trailer. His parents ridiculed him and made fun of the way he talked. ... He was made to stand in the corner for hours and sleep on the floor with the dog. When our officers asked the father why the boy had never been enrolled in school, the father said, 'He ain't been sent to school because he talks funny.' "

Stacy was convinced that, if his officers had not returned to the mobile home that evening, the family would have left town and the boy would never have been rescued. The child had broken bones and a skull fracture that had never been treated. The parents were arrested and charged with multiple felonies, and the boy and his brother and sister were taken to safety and placed in foster homes.

Social-service and child-protection agencies are often overworked and have large caseloads. Police departments get emergency call after emergency call. It is exhausting, seemingly endless work, and it can be dispiriting.

But no call alleging the torture of a child can ever be allowed to be checked off as routine. That is why I got back in touch with those three Whitehall officers last week. In terms of this kind of case, what they did represents the gold standard. They refused to go away until they were sure.

They are almost 20 years older now. I asked them what they thought the lesson was.

"You have to listen to that little voice in your head," Steven Brown said. "You don't leave until you are absolutely convinced."

"Always err on the side of making sure," Dan Wardlow said. "If you don't, maybe no one ever will."

"Take it to the very end," Rex Adkins said. "Don't walk away. Go that extra mile. You will never regret it."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.