Nichols and her detectives entered the bright fluorescence of the hospital just after 10 pm and took the elevator to the 11th floor. They stepped into the orderly chaos of the trauma intensive care unit. The hospital housed the REACH Clinic, the only medical facility in Dallas focused exclusively on treating abused children. The clinic’s head pediatrician had special board certification in child abuse, a recent medical subspecialty held by about 324 doctors nationally, 18 of whom practiced in Texas.

When_The_Bough_Breaks_03.jpg INNOCENCE LOST: Nichols holds a photo of baby Joniah, one of the hundreds of cases the Child Abuse Squad investigates each year. Photography by Shane Kislack


Nichols walked toward a bank of desks ringed by a circle of trauma rooms. “Police are here,” a nurse called out to the half-dozen others, many wearing Dansko shoes and scrubs, their hair swept back into buns and ponytails. “Cards, please,” a nurse asked, then nodded toward Room 269. “Over there.”

The detectives approached the dimly lit room with a wall of windows overlooking the city lights. In the center was a miniature hospital bed. On it lay baby Joniah, wearing a diaper, his eyes closed. A breathing tube ran down his throat. Another pumped oxygen into his nose. Monitors beeped information about his blood pressure and heart rate. A nurse sat nearby, typing on a keyboard.

The child’s parents held hands on a couch, talking quietly. The father was about 30, had his dark hair in braids, and wore a Green Bay Packers jacket. The mother wore jeans and a black jacket.

“I’ll take Mom, and you take Dad,” Slade said to Vann. They introduced themselves and led the parents to separate interview rooms.

Nichols stayed behind with the baby. She believed it was important to start each case by spending a few moments with the child. She approached the bed, her short gray hair tucked behind her ears, her intense blue eyes focused on Joniah. Nichols stood just 5 feet 6 inches but carried herself as if she were larger, radiating an intensity just barely contained. She wore a silver medallion around her neck, a gift from her instructor at the police academy. It was of St. Michael, the patron saint of police officers, an archangel who battled Satan and won.

A 29-year police veteran, Nichols majored in criminal justice at the University of Southern Mississippi before joining the Dallas Police Department in 1982, back when officers wrote reports on carbon paper. When she told relatives she joined the force, her grandmother said, “Oh, honey, you’re too tenderhearted for that.” Her father said, “With your temper, you’re gonna shoot somebody.”

One of four women in her academy group, Nichols was elected class president and graduated with the second-highest academic score. Her trainers noted that she had the potential to lead, if she could control her mouth. After five years, she was promoted to sergeant and decided that was high enough; she wanted to do police work, not administration. She married an officer in her academy class, and they started trying to have babies, hoping for two, maybe three. For 15 years she tried to get pregnant.

Nichols poured herself into work and was drawn to squads that dealt with children. She was assigned to supervise the Missing Persons Squad, where her team investigated thousands of cases of young runaways. But she wanted to help earlier in the process and lobbied to lead the Child Abuse Squad. After a longtime sergeant retired in 2005, Nichols got the job.

Whenever she had an opening on her squad, she looked for detectives who felt called to help children. Without that conviction, Nichols thought, they could not survive the caseload. In interviews with candidates, she was blunt about the work. “There are times when I sit at my desk and look at this stuff, or I hear a small child pour out what has been done to them, and, literally, my mind rejects what it hears,” Nichols would tell them. “I think my ears are lying to me.”

She sometimes collapsed on her bed after work and cried on the phone to her mother. How was it that so many women were able to have babies and then allowed them to be brutalized, tortured, burned? It wasn’t fair. But over time, Nichols began to see divine purpose in her inability to conceive. If she’d had her own children, she never could have devoted so much of herself to the city’s broken babies.


•••


Nichols felt her anger rising as she stood beside baby Joniah’s bed in the ICU on that December night. A nurse snapped on blue rubber gloves. “Let me show you,” she told Nichols. She gently turned the baby on his side and pointed out two deep, crimson marks on his back. Nichols unzipped the kit she always carried, grabbed a small ruler and digital camera, and snapped pictures for evidence. Two more nurses arrived to help lift Joniah’s limp body, showing Nichols what appeared to be deep scratch marks, old and new, crisscrossing his legs, back, and stomach.

Nichols wanted to say a prayer over the child. But in this case, like so many others, she wasn’t sure what to pray. Should she pray that he live or that he die? Which would be more merciful?


“His left heel is bruised, and it almost looks like a bite mark,” one nurse said.

Nichols moved in for a closer look. “Yeah, definitely. You can see the teeth marks.”

Children often can’t tell detectives what happened to them. But their injuries always tell a story. The essence of a child abuse investigation is determining the plausibility of an adult’s story, given the child’s condition. Could the child have sustained the injuries by falling off a bed, tumbling down stairs, or any number of accidents that parents routinely describe? Or does the story fail to account for the injuries?

As Nichols took pictures, a young resident physician walked into the room. “I was taking care of him,” the doctor said. “I just came up to see how he was doing.”

He borrowed an ophthalmoscope from the nurses, approached Joniah’s bed, and looked into his eyes. “He has retinal hemorrhaging like crazy,” the doctor said. “Dude, that sucks.”

The vessels in Joniah’s eyes had burst, causing blood to pool. This could have been caused by devastating force to the head, such as a car crash or violent shaking.

The doctor offered the scope to Nichols. “Can you see that?” he asked.

“Yes,” Nichols said. “Jesus.”

Standing beside Joniah’s bed, Nichols reached over and gently rubbed the baby’s arm. A devout Baptist, Nichols wanted to say a prayer over the child. But in this case, like so many others, she wasn’t sure what to pray. Should she pray that he live or that he die? Which would be more merciful? She closed her eyes.

Lord, please lay your hands upon this little one. Your will be done.

She wanted the baby to know that he was not alone. It was always a powerful moment for Nichols, when an injured child was securely in the hands of doctors and cops and caseworkers. Sometimes there were so many people moving over the child with such sudden, focused energy that Nichols would just step back and watch as the light pushed back against the dark. To her, the trauma room at Children’s was a charged intersection, where people’s darkest, most brutal impulses collided with the most heroic and brave.

A nurse appeared in the doorway. “Do y’all know about the other girl across the way?” she asked. “She’s head-to-toe covered in bruises.”

Nichols looked at her watch. It was 10:30 pm.

“Ask them what city it happened in,” Nichols said. She waited for the nurse to return, thinking, Please don’t be Dallas.

“It happened in Greenville,” the nurse said.

“Thank God,” Nichols said. “I hate to say it, but that baby’s not mine.”


•••


Every day the list grows name by name, week by week, month by month, until the file cabinets are filled with them. Babies who arrive in emergency rooms with bruises, bite marks, and broken bones. Toddlers who know the awful possibilities of belt buckles, hot irons, pots of boiling water, and cocked fists. Adolescents who fear the sound of a zipper going down in the dark.

“The true measure of a society is how we treat our children,” says Madeline McClure, head of the Dallas-based Texas Association for the Protection of Children. “If we can’t provide them with basic safety, then we have failed. And all the evidence shows that we are failing.”

It’s difficult to get a clear picture of the trends in child abuse. State and national figures show a decline in cases in recent years, yet emergency-room doctors say they are seeing more injured children than ever. The Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center handled a record 2,788 cases in 2013, a nearly 24 percent increase since 2011. Leaders there say the city continues to face a child abuse epidemic.

“I truly don’t believe the public is even close to aware that we have this big of a problem,” says state District Judge William Mazur Jr., who presides over abuse and neglect cases in Dallas. “I have lived in Texas all my life, and Texans would not put up with this if they understood what was happening. It’s an embarrassment. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves.”

Over the past decade, some 20 children a year were killed from abuse or neglect in the city of Dallas. In Texas, which has one of the highest rates of child homicide in the country, roughly 217 children are killed each year.