Starved boy’s death changes law

The death of Jovona Ocha so inflamed Texas residents that the state legislature passed laws requiring law enforcement and state social service agencies to work together.
Texas Ranger Sgt. Chris Burchell told how the seven-year-old was starved to death by his grandma because she considered him the ‘‘bastard child’’ of her daughter who had chosen a lifestyle unacceptable to the family.
It was a lack of communication.
A social service agency had information that would have alerted authorities and might have saved Jovona’s life, he said.
It was that restricted information, plus law enforcement egos that got in the way, Burchell said. ‘‘Unfortunately, this incident also happened on my watch (district) and no one likes to admit to these situations.’’
Jovona’s story was told as part of the Texas officer’s law enforcement presentation during the Human Trafficking Awareness Conference at Oral Roberts University last month.
While Jovona and his siblings were not sex slaves, some family members were on the edge of of these or drug rings.
Grandma received life in prison for her actions, Burchell said. Other adult members of the family received up to 15 years in prison. They knew about the situaiton. The mother, who dropped the children off at grandma’s house seven months earlier, was sentenced to four years in jail for failing to be responsible for the children.
The surviving children, who detailed what happened to authorities, were placed in custody of a state agency.
Burchell showed photos of the bedroom where the boy was held, the rope he gnawed and the bed post that also had his teeth marks as he struggled to get nourishment. Medical personnel told officers these were signs that someone was starving.
Pictures of the emaciated boy’s body also were shown to the very shocked, still audience. The final photo was of Jovona’s tombstone that included his picture when he was healthy. It was paid for by the church community, not the family.
Now law enforcement and social service agencies in Texas are required by law to share information when situations demand that action, Burchell said. Had that data been available to a beat officer earlier, he might have been able to take action and prevent that death.
Neighbors reported problems involving children, but when police responded, occupants either didn’t answer the door or were able to turn officers away.
Circumstances about Jovona’s death might have gone unnoticed had routine investigative procedures been followed, he said.
Instead, an alert supervisor questioned the scene and triggered the investigation.
Burchell recalled a time early in his career when it was a civil rights violation to question possible domestic violence.
Laws have been changed to allow officers to go into a home when domestic violence is suspected.
‘‘I can’t tell you the number of times I have gone to a home, seen a woman inside that obviously had been beaten, and couldn’t do anything,’’ Burchell said. ‘‘A man would come to the door and tell me to leave, something I had to do because I would have been violating their civil rights had I entered.
‘‘Since those laws have been changed, law enforcement now can go into those homes, remove women and children and arrest the person suspected of the assault.’’
Officers often are accused of being insensitive to people during investigations, but they also must follow rules. Those rules can involve jurisdictional boundaries.
Pedophiles love the communication gap between law enforcement agencies, Burchell said. Every jurisdiction, federal, state and local, has its own set of rules.
One of the most challenging efforts is informing other agencies and getting them to cooperate, he said. ‘‘Some chiefs had told me, ‘thank you sheriff, but you are out of your jurisdiction and we don’t have a problem. Others have responded with ‘oh my God!’ and opened their doors to accept help.’’
Law enforcement agencies cannot have an ego in their pursuit of these people. They have to work together or the victim is left hanging without assistance from anyone.
Early on, law enforcement realized they could not do the field work and keep up with the related paperwork.
They turned to non-government agencies for help, especially when they went to crime scenes.
The woman from a non-government agency remained out of harms way, but would be called on to help if a female sex victim was found, he said. Victims soon would get comfortable with the woman not involved with the law and provide critical information needed to build cases against perpetrators.
The partnership between non-government agencies and law enforcement is paying off, he said. But it required a major attitude change at all levels and with a number of agencies.
‘‘Cops have a ‘we are in charge’ attitude,’’ Burchell said. In the past one agency wouldn’t share information with another, an attitude that created dangerous situations for officers and victims alike.
FBI Special Agent Jim Windsor echoed Burchell’s remarks.
When assigned to Oklahoma City to work on Civil Rights cases, he found this issue generally was covered by other agencies.
But he found that human trafficking was not coordinated through any agency.
A task force was organized that involved the Wage and Hour division; U.S. Attorney’s office, Oklahoma City Police Department, and ICE.
Human trafficking is very victim oriented, Windsor said. It is imperative that victims are removed from their situation, while during typical law enforcement work, they remain until the investigation is completed. Non-government agencies need to be involved to advocate for these individuals.
Partnerships have been developed with Catholic Charities, United Way and the Red Cross, and others to help.
Mark Elam and Oklahomans Against Trafficking Humans also came to the aid of investigators by taking over the massive amount of paperwork the cases were generating.
Various law enforcement personnel are cross-deputized, an act that gives them more jurisdiction when working on cases, Windsor said. Still, they have to follow rules established within their own agency.
It too that interagency cooperation to make Operation Stormy Night work, he said. Officers hit a truck stop and found more than a dozen young girls, the youngest 13 years-old, that had been brought to the location for sexual purposes. Authorities could only determine the homes of three of the girls. They had no idea where the others might have lived.
Labor trafficking is another big issue, Windsor said. It can involve farm labor, restaurants, nail salons, massage parlors and bars. Even though these victims are protected by the U.S. Constitution, they are not calling anyone, they have no voice. Those who are here illegally fear deportation.
Sometimes the federal agency isn’t the right place to go with information, he said. But people can be directed to the proper department that has authority.
Working with dual agencies requires coordination and cooperation at all levels, Burchell said. Sometimes it requires taco sessions where officers from various agencies work out details of working together. When everyone works together it will be possible to help these victims.
It also takes people willing to make the call.
The O.A.T.H. national hotline number is 1-888-3737-888.
Locally, Elam can be reached at 855-1764.

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