An active, 11-year-old boy, indulging in horseplay, falls and bumps his head on the pavement. Before the incident is over, the boy’s home is raided by a SWAT team, and the county sheriff is snowed under by emails and phone calls calling him a fascist.
How did it happen? And how are we to understand it?
Thomas Shiflett, 62, and his wife, Tina, were handcuffed by sheriff’s deputies the evening of Friday, January 4, when the Garfield County, Colorado, All Hazards Response Team (similar to a SWAT team) forced its way into the family’s mobile home. The boy, Jonathan, was taken into custody, taken to a hospital, and given a CAT scan, which revealed no injuries requiring medical treatment. He was sent back home two hours later.
“You bet I’m angry!” Shiflett told Chalcedon. “But I’ll tell you this: if they can do it to me, they can do it to you.”
A Surprise Visit from the Paramedics
Earlier in the week, Shiflett said, Jonathan fell and bumped his head, trying to grab a car being driven by his 24-year-old sister, who didn’t see him. Shiflett carried his son home to check him for concussion and broken bones—he was a combat medic in the Vietnam War. Finding nothing seriously wrong, Shiflett applied an ice pack to the bump on Jonathan’s head.
What he didn’t know was that a neighbor had seen the accident and called for an ambulance. “I guess it must have looked pretty bad, to him,” Shiflett said. “Maybe he thought Jonathan got run over.”
Soon the ambulance arrived, and the Shiflett family’s troubles began.
“The paramedics just barged in when my wife opened the door,” Shiflett said. “They wanted to take Jonathan to the hospital. There was no need for it; and besides, we couldn’t afford the hospital bill. But the ambulance attendant got real huffy because she couldn’t do what she wanted to do, and finally I made them leave.”
We are left to imagine how heated that discussion got. The paramedics contacted Garfield County Magistrate Lain Leoniak, and he issued an order to Sheriff Lou Vallario to take Jonathan into custody so that the boy could be examined by a doctor.
A Visit from the Social Workers
The sheriff sent two deputies to explain to Shiflett what was wanted. That discussion, too, grew heated.
On Friday afternoon, two social workers came to see Jonathan and talk to him. A sheriff’s deputy accompanied them.
“First they asked him, ‘Do you like Lego?’ I guess that was to break the ice,” Shiflett said. “Then they asked him if he felt safe, here at home, and would he want to live with any other relatives. They didn’t get very far with that, so they left.”
Jonathan is one of 10 Shiflett children. Four are adults, but there are still six at home, the youngest seven years old. All 10 have been homeschooled.
Because he does not believe he should be required to register for Social Security, Shiflett makes a living by doing odd jobs in the neighborhood (“No one will hire me without a Social Security card,” he said). He recently remodeled a neighbor’s bathroom. His wife and children also do odd jobs. They have lived at their present address for 20 years.
Deputies and social workers having failed to convince Shiflett to let them take Jonathan to the hospital, Sheriff Vallario decided to send the All Hazards Response Team to take the boy into custody.
The Sheriff’s Thinking
Why did the sheriff make that decision? The judge’s order told him to take the boy into custody, but did not tell him how to do it.
“[B]ecause of Shiflett’s confrontational behavior when Social Services was there,” Vallario explains in an email to Chalcedon. And also, “Shiflett has a violent history with us when he was arrested for chasing a man with an ax.”
The ax incident occurred in 2005. As Shiflett explained it, he was defending himself against a much younger man who had had relations with one of Shiflett’s daughters, who was still a minor. The confrontation began when the younger man came to Shiflett’s door and the two got into an altercation. The record shows that although Shiflett was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon, the county prosecutor dropped the charges.
In a guest column for the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (http://postindependent.com/article/20080112/COLUMNISTS/339379810), Vallario writes, “I can tell you that I have personally had confrontations with the father over issues, one specifically that required me to ask him to leave the office because he was becoming agitated, confrontational, and was scaring the citizens and administrative staff in the office.”
Vallario, in his email, calls Shiflett “radical and dangerous.” He says in his column that the use of handcuffs at the Shiflett home was “a safety tactic … for the protection of officers and individuals inside the home. These steps were taken because of the very tight quarters inside the trailer, and Tom Shiflett was obviously very agitated.”
Who wouldn’t be?
“Everyone Is Safe”
The sheriff and his deputies “want to make me out to be a violent person,” Shiflett said, “but they have no record [of Shiflett committing violent acts].”
As the father of 10 children, he said, he has had plenty of experience tending the minor injuries of children: “And yet everybody tells me I’m not qualified to care for my child. But I was trained in the Army, at taxpayers’ expense! I was a medic. Are they trying to say that training was a waste of money?”
Tina Shiflett was in the kitchen at the time of the raid.
“I never even imagined something like this,” she said. “There was no time to think—we were just overwhelmed. They just bashed in the door and charged into our living room.
“We’ve lived here for 20 years. It’s always been a quiet, peaceful community. But this thing has changed our lives forever. It’ll be hard to go back to normal life, after this. A week later, my adrenaline’s still going.”
“What’s important is that the child’s injuries were not life-threatening and everyone is safe,” the sheriff writes in his column. The Shifletts would not agree.
“Now my children are afraid of men and women in uniform,” Tom Shiflett said. “My son Jonathan cried that night. Not because he was hurt; he cried because he was so angry. Our younger son, Noah, cried because he was afraid he would never see his brother again after they took him.”
Can the State Protect Our Children?
After the story was reported in WorldNetDaily on January 7 (http://wnd.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=59566), the sheriff’s office received several hundred emails, and many more phone calls, from all over the country.
Vallario calls the reporting by WND “biased” and “sensationalized … intentionally spun to agitate” readers. The tone of the phone calls and emails was certainly agitated (see the January 12 report in the Post Independent, http://www.postindependent.com/article/20080112/VALLEYNEWS/743440957).
Why was Shiflett agitated? When a father sees his child have an injury, and it turns out to be nothing more than a bump on the head; and suddenly he has paramedics—whom he has not called—demanding to take the child to a hospital, might that not agitate him? Might not a father be provoked to anger when social workers—whom he has not called—come to his house to ask the child, “Do you feel safe here?” Many of us might find such circumstances agitating.
Perhaps another father might have been able to control his anger better. Perhaps it might have been wise for Mr. Shiflett to have said, “There’s nothing wrong with my son that a little rest and an ice pack can’t cure. Nevertheless, since you insist on his being examined at a hospital, and as long as you are paying for it, I will allow a doctor to examine him—provided you allow me to accompany my son.” Such an answer might have appeased the authorities without the father ceding to them authority over his son.
The history of the state’s involvement in child protection is replete with failures. One of the most gruesome of these occurred in New York City in 1987 when attorney Joel Steinberg was arrested for the murder of his six-year-old “adopted daughter” Lisa (actually, Steinberg had circumvented the official adoption channels). See “The Killing of Lisa Steinberg,” http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/family/lisa_steinberg/6.html.
The brutality of this murder will not be described here; it makes for very difficult reading. We mention it because in this case, Steinberg’s neighbors repeatedly contacted the authorities to report abuse: not only of the child, but of the attorney’s common-law “wife,” Hedda Nussbaum. Although social workers visited the Steinberg home on several occasions, and Lisa’s schoolteachers reported evidence of continuing abuse, nothing was done to rescue the little girl—and this in a great city notable for its plethora of government agencies supposedly operating to curb domestic violence. As one neighbor told reporters, “I ask myself what else I should have done. I don’t know what else I could have done, short of dragging the kid out the door with a gun!”
Since 1987 there have been many cases of child abuse or neglect resulting in the death of one or more children—incidents that were duly reported to police or social services without any effective action being taken.
But there have also been cases like the Shifletts’ in which no abuse or neglect was involved, no child was in danger—and yet the full weight of officialdom was brought to bear. How are we to trust the state to protect children when its performance has been so erratic?
Who’s to Blame?
This situation could have turned out a great deal worse. Thankfully, no one was injured by the SWAT team and Jonathan came to no harm in the hospital (although his father said he caught a cold there). It seems the sheriff overestimated Mr. Shiflett’s predisposition for violent resistance.
How are we to trust the state to keep children safe when its agents visit a SWAT team on a home full of healthy children, while so often failing to protect other children from real and life-threatening abuse? Despite all the schools, social services agencies, law enforcement agencies, hotlines, and an alphabet soup of bureaucracies, the state has never shown any aptitude for child protection. The Lisa Steinbergs of this nation testify to the state’s incompetence.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. Mr. Shiflett could have adopted a less confrontational attitude. The paramedics could have been less overbearing: why were they so insistent on taking the child to the hospital?
What kind of investigation, if any, did the judge make before issuing the order to seize the child? Did he simply choose to believe everything an overzealous paramedic told him? What about the social workers? Couldn’t they see there was nothing wrong with the boy?
As for the sheriff, it seems he overestimated Mr. Shiflett’s potential for violence; and we are in no position to evaluate his judgment, based as it was on personal interactions between them. We can only say that we had a long telephone conversation with Mr. Shiflett and his wife, and formed no impression that he is a danger to his family or to anyone in his neighborhood.
Are we to haul off to the hospital every active child who bumps his head or scrapes his knee? Is the state to investigate every time a child has a minor injury? And while the agents of the state are busy doing that, how many cases of grave abuse or neglect will they fail to address?
The simple truth of the matter is that the state is not omnipotent and can’t do everything. Statists routinely omit this from their calculations. They promise us that if only we give them the power, they’ll abolish war, poverty, inequality, child abuse, and everything else that makes this fallen world a vale of tears—and anyone who stands in the way will get a visit from the SWAT team.
We do not fault anyone involved in this case for making human errors. We do not fault the state for taking action when there is reasonable grounds to believe a child’s life is in danger because of abuse or neglect. What we do fault is the illusion that the state is all-knowing, all-wise, and competent to intervene in every case. Good intentions do not justify tyranny. All too often, the state’s good intentions only lead to making any situation worse. Everyone involved in this case had good intentions, beginning with the neighbor who called the ambulance. And each well-intentioned step brought the Shiflett family closer to a climax that could have had a tragic ending.
Neither is the church all-competent, nor the family: if they were, children would never be abused or neglected. Extended families, caring neighbors, pastors, church congregations, and even employees of the state are all safety measures against domestic violence—safety measures, not panaceas.
We must all learn to distinguish between situations that require intervention and those that don’t.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.