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Features - Posted September 22, 2017 8:49 a.m.
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Photos by Shannon Richardson

The Pursuit of Justice

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In middle school, Caroline Smith finally asked a teacher for help. She was 12 years old and had already endured a lifetime of sexual abuse from her father. She wanted it to stop.

As she started a new school year at Horace Mann, she mustered enough courage to tell a caring adult what was happening at home. The local justice system sprang into motion. Child Protective Services stepped in, her biological father was arrested, and Caroline entered the foster system.

Two years later, the man went to trial for the abuse and Caroline was called on to testify. That was the moment officer Daniel Smith of the Amarillo Police Department entered her life.

At the time of the trial, Smith was in the middle of a training rotation, during which patrolmen like him gained experience working alongside detectives across various divisions of APD. The trial for Caroline’s biological father happened to coincide with Smith’s rotation in Crimes Against Persons. “They do a lot of child abuse cases and sex crimes,” he says.

The detective assigned to Caroline’s case had grown increasingly frustrated with the trial. “While she was testifying, the father was trying to intimidate her on the stand,” Smith remembers. The detective shared his concerns with his superior, and no one in the department was about to let an abuser bully a little girl. “The lieutenant came out, said ‘training day,’ and sent us to court to show support for her,” says Smith.

In other words, the lieutenant suspected the father would be less willing to intimidate Caroline if she were surrounded by a formation of burly police officers. Smith was happy to play that role.

When he entered the courtroom, it took him a moment to find the little girl. “She was tiny,” he says. “Her head was about the same height as the seat.” Earlier in the trial, Caroline had been alone. But this day, the courtroom filled with women from The Bridge Children’s Advocacy Center, Child Protective Services representatives, and – by Smith’s count – around a dozen uniformed APD officers and detectives.

With Caroline surrounded by her protectors, the father’s intimidation tactics weakened. “Every time he would turn around to look at her, all of the detectives and myself would be behind her, as if to say, ‘Leave her alone,’” Smith says.

The abuser was found guilty.

But Smith couldn’t stop thinking about what he had heard during the trial and what the young girl had gone through. He asked the detective assigned to her case what would happen next.

“He said. ‘She’ll just bounce from foster home to foster home now. Hopefully she’ll get in the system and when she turns 18, everything will work out.’”

That forecast didn’t reassure Smith. On the spur of the moment, he suggested an alternative. “I didn’t think about it – and probably I should have – but I said ‘I have a house with an empty room. Why can’t she live with us?’”

The detective looked at Smith, and asked if the officer was serious. Because if he truly meant it, Smith needed to get in touch with Caroline’s foster care worker.

That’s when Smith hesitated a little. “I thought maybe I should ask my wife before I made any more comments,” he says.

Brooke Anne Smith didn’t hesitate at all. She agreed to it. The couple had wanted to have children for awhile, but so far hadn’t had any luck. “Honestly, I wanted to be a dad,” Daniel says. “The situation came up and those words just came out of my mouth. I didn’t even think about it.”

With his wife’s blessing, Smith got in touch with Caroline’s caseworker, who asked again whether or not he was serious. “She didn’t even want to introduce us if we weren’t,” he says. Daniel and Brooke Anne began the two-month process of becoming certified as foster parents. They underwent criminal background checks. During home visits, they had their home checked for safety and their dog evaluated to make sure it wasn’t a dangerous breed.

Then, for the first time, the couple met with Caroline. They were joined by her caseworker and the police detective. As the group sat together at a table at Ruby Tequila’s, Smith became aware of the unlikely pairing. He is a cop through and through: thickly muscled and outgoing, with a loud, commanding voice.

Caroline, on the other hand, was small, shy, and had endured years of abuse from another male. She had already been placed in a foster home, where she lived with several other foster kids. The decision to move in with Daniel and Brooke Anne was hers alone to make. Daniel worried she wouldn’t be interested.

But Caroline remembered Daniel from the trial. He had spoken to her then. He had been kind. “He walked by and asked me if I was OK or if I needed anything,” she says.

Caroline said yes.

“I had lost all my family,” she says today. “The only family I had were cops and caseworkers.” Having grown to trust law enforcement, Caroline says she immediately felt safe around Smith. She had grown up in an abusive family and had a normal childhood taken away from her. All she wanted was to experience a loving family.

“I wanted to see what having a real dad was like, and a mom who was around,” she says.

The little girl moved in with Daniel and Brooke Anne. The inexperienced parents took to her immediately. Caroline had turned 14 by the time she entered their home, so the couple went from having no children at all to raising a teenager. Undeterred by the challenge, they started the adoption process to make sure she could stay with them permanently. First, they had to wait for her parental rights to be terminated, then wait for the required appeals process to go through the courts.

Smith says the stress of that lengthy process would have resulted in a lot of sleepless nights had he not already been working the midnight shift as a police officer. “I remember sitting in my patrol car [one night]. It was around three in the morning and quiet. I had tears in my eyes,” he says. “I already liked being around her and really wanted to adopt.”

Thankfully, none of Caroline’s biological family members appealed the decision. Daniel, Brooke Anne, and Caroline entered into the adoption phase and never looked back. In 2013, when Caroline was 16, the process became complete. Caroline took her adoptive parents’ last name.

Since then, the Smiths have fostered and then adopted two more children, a brother-and-sister pair who had become separated in the foster care system. Now ages 5 and 7, the boy and girl made Caroline a big sister and turned the family of three into a family of five. Caroline ended up with the family she had always dreamed about.

“I got to live as a normal teenager,” she says now, smiling at her father. They tease each other like any father and daughter would. “I completely started over thanks to him.” Daniel and Brooke Anne were as strict with Caroline as any parent would be with a teenage daughter, and their relationship wasn’t immune to the usual frustrations. “We had arguments over me doing chores and homework,” Caroline says. “I couldn’t come out of my bedroom until I finished. It was a lot more strict environment than where I was. It was hard to get used to.”

“Dogs and dishes,” Daniel interjects. He shakes his head as his daughter grins. “Who knew those two words could start a fight with a teenage girl? Feed the dogs and do the dishes.”

But Caroline learned personal discipline at home and says it helped her as she went through high school. She graduated from Amarillo High in 2015. Now 20 years old, she works as a correctional officer for Potter County. Caroline sees the position as a stepping stone to a career in law enforcement.
She wants to become a police officer.

Like any dad, Smith has mixed feelings about the idea. He’s honored his daughter wants to follow in his footsteps. He’s also not sure he wants her to enter a dangerous profession. Caroline remembers their first conversation about it. “The day I put in my application and told him about it, he asked why I wanted to do it,” she says. “I said, ‘I want to keep people like my biological dad, who hurt me, away from people that don’t deserve to be hurt. I want to protect people who were just like me.’”

Daniel had no argument against that.

Today, both father and daughter are advocates for how foster care can change a child’s life. Because his connection to Caroline began as part of his job, Smith still finds himself discussing the situation with colleagues.

“Several officers have talked about it,” he says. “They’ve told me they had biological children but didn’t feel like they were done, and asked what foster care was like. I tell them that it’s worth it.” He’s quick to admit that raising a teenager isn’t always easy, regardless of whether it occurs in a foster care, adoptive, or biological situation. “No kid is going to come in and be the perfect child. It’s an adjustment on both sides. But I always tell people that I sincerely think we needed the kids more than they needed us. It helped us grow.”

He doesn’t just feel pride, but a sense of completion. As a patrolman, his job takes place at the front end of a criminal case or investigation. “If you’re an interested policeman, you’ll follow the case throughout, but once the case is done, that’s it,” he explains. Patrol officers like Smith have only a limited impact on the outcome. Often they feel helpless or frustrated when criminal cases don’t come to a satisfying conclusion. They’re part of the justice system, and they want justice.

But with Caroline, Daniel Smith saw a terrible situation come to an incredibly rewarding end. He watched the detectives work the case. He was present at the trial. He saw Caroline’s father get convicted and imprisoned, and then he saw her life change – along with his own – when she became part of his family.
“It was a finish for me,” he says. “I got to see the after.”

These days, Smith is a Neighborhood Patrol Officer stationed in the Eastridge area, where he and other community policing officers work to establish connections with residents of this refugee-heavy neighborhood.

After work, the policeman father and correctional-officer daughter both come home from their jobs and share with each other about their day. He solves neighborhood problems and, some days, helps put bad guys behind bars. She helps keep some of those bad guys behind bars. Amarillo’s law enforcement community is a tight one, and Daniel Smith knows Caroline’s supervisors. Like any protective father, he occasionally checks up on her.

“We’re all friends,” he says. “They tell me how good she’s doing. Now I get to look at Caroline and what she’s accomplished and the sense of pride there is just – ”

He pauses, his voice catching. His eyes shine, just a little. He smiles at his grown-up daughter.

Caroline looks down, a young adult embarrassed by her dad.

“It’s a great thing,” Daniel says.

by Jason Boyett

Jason has written more than a dozen books and is the host and creator of “Hey Amarillo”, a local interview podcast. Visit heyamarillo.com and jasonboyett.com.
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