How one child abuse call changed a cop's life
Jody Thompson had a history of working abuse cases. But nothing could have prepared him for the call that changed his life
As part of our year-end coverage, we look back at some of the biggest law enforcement news stories of 2017, and reconnect with some of the officers and departments involved in them to find out what has developed since.
In this article, Officer Jody Thompson reflects on the incredible act of kindness he managed to keep secret for two years until it caught the attention of the world earlier in 2017.
Officer Jody Thompson knew it was bad. Sometimes the reality of a call wasn’t as awful as it sounded over the radio. Not this one. After 16 years in law enforcement, he could tell the difference. He heard the distress in the dispatcher’s voice. The follow up call affirmed his belief: the child said his parents were trying to kill him.
Thompson was en route to a law enforcement training conference in Oklahoma City, about three hour’s drive from Poteau – the small rural town in Le Flore County he calls his beat. He turned the car around; his colleagues would need his expertise in child abuse cases, built from years of prior work as a general assignment investigator for a district attorney’s office. Despite his extensive background, nothing could have prepared him for the horror he was about to witness that day in April 2015.
John had escaped to a neighbor’s house. The 8-year-old boy was the first thing Thompson saw when he walked in. His hands were bound. He was soaking wet – his abusers had submerged him in a trash can full of icy water. He was shaking so violently from the shock and the cold that he couldn’t speak – his teeth audibly chattering. Of all the disturbing signs of trauma, what stuck out to Thompson most was a purple knot the size of a tennis ball on the boy’s forehead – an image that still haunts him to this day. It was the most severe case of abuse Thompson had ever seen.
On the way to the children’s advocacy center, Thompson tried to steer John away from recounting what he’d suffered through; he knew the boy would soon undergo a forensic interview.
“I promised him ‘Nobody’s gonna hurt you anymore, you’re with me,’” Thompson said. “And he kept saying, ‘They’re gonna kill me. They’re gonna kill me. They’re gonna kill me.’”
As the boy was photographed at the advocacy center, Thompson could see his collarbones and every one of his ribs. His shoulders were pronounced. His face was sunken in. He was bruised and cut from head to toe. He weighed only 61 pounds.
When the emergency room doctor later appeared in court, he testified that he couldn’t find a one-inch square on the boy’s body that didn’t have a bruise or an abrasion.
GUARDIAN IN THE ER
As Thompson spent the night checking on John, speaking with his doctors, and moving the various components of the investigation along, his emotions started flooding in. He thought about his own two kids – particularly his youngest, who was just six weeks apart in age from John.
“I was wondering how in the world a human being could treat a child like this,” Thompson said.
Almost 700,000 kids are abused every year in the United States. Many of those children end up in foster care, where they may remain for years or age out without permanent families. Thompson knew the statistics – in Le Flore County alone, hundreds of children are looking for a forever home. By the time the long night in the ER ended, Thompson knew what he needed to do. Around twenty-four hours after he had met the boy, Thompson made the decision to adopt him.
“I knew there was no way to not wonder about him. And the only way to stop that feeling was to bring him home,” Thompson said.
For an act so selfless and sudden, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Thompson faced pushback.
“For about a day and a half they thought I was kidding,” Thompson said. “I was getting frustrated, didn’t know who to call, so I finally called the assistant DA and said, ‘Listen, what do I have to do? I’m telling these people what I want and they think I’m joking around.’”
By that time, John had been released from the hospital and placed in a foster home.
“That made me even madder because I didn’t want him to get in the carousel of what some of these foster children experience,” Thompson said. “I thought he was still at the ICU – when I found out he was at a traditional foster home, that’s when I really started yelling at people. I said, ‘Hey listen, I can’t concentrate, I can’t know that he’s safe unless he’s with me.’ Finally, they started going through the motions and got us certified as foster parents.”
Thompson took John home – his family had no idea they were about to have a new member.
John and Thompson were playing in the front yard when the officer’s wife came home that day. When she pulled up and spotted the pair, she didn’t say a word. As the manager of the local women’s crisis center and an advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, she knew trauma. She knew what it meant when a strange kid was playing in the yard. She got out of her car, tears in her eyes, and gave John a hug before she even knew his name. Thompson’s two children had a similar response; John was welcomed into his new home with open arms.
Much has happened since that day a little over two years ago. The family welcomed a fourth child – Thompson found out his wife was pregnant only days after he brought John home. And, incredibly, a fifth child was added to the family shortly after that – John’s blood sister, Paisley, who the Thompsons received full custody of after a lengthy court battle with John’s former parents.
Two kids to five in seven months.
“I used to kid my mom and dad and tell them they were crazy for having six of us. Our plan was to have two,” Thompson said. “When I told John we were going to adopt his sister, I’ll never forget as long as I live what he said. He looked right at us, dead serious, and said ‘Finally, a person with my same blood that’ll love me.’”
HEALING AND THRIVING
John has made a lot of progress in his battle to overcome the trauma he suffered at the hands of his former parents. Thompson credits much of it to a form of counseling he wishes more people knew about: trauma-informed cognitive-based counseling, a form of treatment specifically tailored to kids impacted by trauma.
Since undergoing treatment, John struggles less with food. When Thompson first brought him home, he discovered he had a problem with overeating and sneaking food home from school - a result of his abusers withholding meals from him.
He’s also gotten better at showing affection towards his new family.
“He’ll sit down and absolutely tear your heart out with a letter. Just out of the blue he’ll make my wife a card or me a card just to say thanks and I love you,” Thompson said. “He’s very articulate for his age.”
In fact, John, now 10 and going into the fifth grade, is a straight-A student, on the superintendent’s honor roll, and is one of the handful of kids in the gifted and talented program.
“That was his refuge when he was at home going through all this,” Thompson said. “He put all his energy into school. In his mind, he didn’t want to get in trouble in school for fear of not being able to go and being at home all the time. School was a safe place. He never got beat in school, he got fed in school, school was his safe zone. At home, he would make his own homework just to have something to do to release himself from the world he was living in.”
The boy is also a big fan of Pokémon, drama club, and Xbox.
“He’s a typical southeastern Oklahoma American kid,” Thompson said. “He understands he went through something really bad – really horrific. But he’s not gonna let that define who he is. He’s not going to use his past as a crutch or a reason why he can’t do something. He wants kids his age to know – be strong, you can do it. That day when John escaped out of that trash can full of icewater and called for help, he became a hero, because not only did he save himself, he saved his little sister and he didn’t even know it.”
In a small city like Poteau, everyone knows everyone. Yet Thompson managed to keep his incredible act of kindness out of the town gossip in his tight-knit community. The officer wanted it that way – both to protect John’s privacy as he adjusted to his new life and because Thompson didn’t need the recognition.
“It was kept pretty quiet. Jody wasn’t seeking recognition for it. He was happy to do the deed and receive nothing for it – just out of the kindness his heart,” Thompson’s co-worker, Corporal Brandon McDaniel, said.
But word finally got out this year, after the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation honored Thompson for his extraordinary show of humanity.
“We figured it would hit a local news channel, maybe go regional, but it actually went international,” McDaniel said. “People on the other side of the world were looking up the Poteau Police Department. Before they’d probably never even given a thought to an Oklahoma police agency at all, and now they’re looking up this 26-person department and leaving a comment on our Facebook page. That’s pretty touching.”
Thompson’s apprehension over the spread of the story was quickly alleviated. What he thought would further complicate things instead brought his family closer together.
“My kids never knew the story – they just thought we brought John home one day because he needed a home,” Thompson said. “My other kids were in the room when that OSBI certificate was read, and it’s brought my kids closer than they’ve ever been. John has been more of a blessing to us than we have to him, I’m sure. He’s done so much – him and his sister – for our family.”
“Jody truly didn’t expect or even really want the attention that this has got. He’s humbled by it, and he’s appreciative of everything that’s happened for him and his family, but none of it has gone to his head,” McDaniel said. “For him, it was just something he needed to do to make John and his sister safe. He wanted nothing more than that.”
To this day, Thompson’s selflessness continues to inspire his department – and the city as a whole.
“We all kinda say that we would do something like that given the opportunity, but I don’t know very many people that actually would,” McDaniel said. “I’ve been around law enforcement my whole life. My dad was a cop. And I’ve never heard of something so remarkable.”
As for Thompson, his hope is that his story will shed a light on all of the good police officers do every day – and bring more awareness to the staggering number of children out there in need of a good home.
“We didn’t want the story out there. We didn’t put the story out there. But now that it’s out there and we’ve embraced it, we want the world to know that it’s not all doom and gloom. Especially in law enforcement, we’ve got such a black eye right now for whatever reason, but we’re not all out there just to put handcuffs on people. We really do care about the communities that we live in, and this just shows it,” Thompson said.
“We get that mentality as police officers that we want to save the world. Obviously, sometimes we can’t,” Thompson said. “I can’t fairly sit here and demand that every cop takes a kid home, that’s just not going to happen. But we can educate our communities. We need to get awareness out there on child abuse. It’s cliché, but if you see something, say something. If something’s not right, if you get that weird feeling in your stomach or your hair stands up – there’s probably something going on. We also need to bring awareness to foster and adoption. There’s so many kids out there that just want a forever home. Some of them are tough cases, especially in the teenage years when they’ve been in 40 or 50 foster homes, but they just want somebody to love them. If we can give one kid a forever home or save one life, then the story needs to be told.”