State v. Williquette

Citation385 N.W.2d 145,129 Wis.2d 239
Decision Date16 April 1986
Docket NumberNo. 84-2046-CR,84-2046-CR
Parties, 54 USLW 2583 STATE of Wisconsin, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Terri WILLIQUETTE, Defendant-Respondent-Petitioner.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin

Thomas S. Reynolds, Sturgeon Bay, for defendant-respondent-petitioner.

Marguerite M. Moeller, Asst. Atty. Gen., argued for plaintiff-appellant; Bronson C. La Follette, Atty. Gen., on brief.

STEINMETZ, Justice.

The issue in the case is whether a parent who allegedly knew her husband had repeatedly abused her two children both physically and sexually, but who took no action to stop the abuse and instead left the children in the father's sole physical custody for hours at a time, can be tried for the direct commission of the crime of child abuse under sec. 940.201, Stats. 1 We conclude that a parent who knowingly permits another person to abuse the parent's own child subjects the child to abuse within the meaning of sec. 940.201. We therefore affirm the court of appeals' decision. 2

In a criminal complaint issued on November 15, 1983, Terri Williquette, the defendant, was charged with two counts of child abuse, contrary to sec. 940.201, Stats. Count one was based on the defendant's alleged failure to take any action to prevent her husband, Bert Williquette, from repeatedly "sexually abusing, beating, and otherwise mistreating" her seven year old son, B.W. Count two was based on the defendant's alleged failure to take any action to prevent her husband from committing similar acts against the defendant's eight year old daughter, C.P.

The complaint was based on information supplied by Sergeant Bies of the Door county sheriff's department. The sergeant obtained his information from conversations with the children, B.W. and C.P., Dr. Ferrin Holmes, Bert Williquette and the defendant, as well as from his review of a conversation B.W. had had with a social worker.

According to the complaint, B.W. stated that on November 10, 1983, he had been beaten with a metal stick on his right foot, ankle and left thigh by his father, Bert Williquette. B.W. also stated he had been beaten by his father on many occasions in the past and that all the bruises visible on his body were the result of being beaten with a metal stick.

The complaint further stated that B.W. reported being forced by his father to stand on one foot and one hand in an unbalanced position. In that position, his father would strike him. B.W. also indicated that on several occasions Bert Williquette had stuck his "bug" up B.W.'s "butt" and in his mouth. B.W. pointed to the penis on an anatomically correct drawing of an unclothed boy when asked what "bug" meant.

B.W. stated that he had told his mother on many occasions that he had been beaten with the metal stick by Bert Williquette, but the defendant never did anything about it. He also reported telling his mother about the incident on November 10, 1983, when he had been struck on the foot with the metal stick. At that time, his mother told him "not to worry about it."

According to the complaint, Dr. Ferrin Holmes, a pediatrician at the Door County Medical Center, examined B.W. on November 11, 1983, and observed numerous bruises on the child's feet, upper and lower legs, lower and upper back, left arm and the side of his chest. Dr. Holmes stated that, in his professional opinion, B.W. had been beaten on at least four separate occasions in the fairly recent past, and that the beatings were inflicted with a metal stick or instrument.

The complaint also describes a conversation that Sergeant Bies had with C.P., defendant's daughter, on November 14, 1983. C.P. stated that Bert Williquette regularly beat her and her brother at their home in Door county, on occasion using a metal stick with a hook on its end. C.P. stated that Bert Williquette would beat her and B.W. so hard that the children would wet their pants. He allegedly would also make the children balance on one hand and one leg, and then he would take the hook end of the metal stick and trip them, causing them to fall down. C.P. told Sergeant Bies that some time after Halloween in 1983, Bert Williquette hit her on the top of the head with the metal stick so hard that she bled. Sergeant Bies examined the area of C.P.'s head where she claimed Bert Williquette had struck her, and he could still feel a lump there. C.P. indicated that she had told the defendant about the incident, and that the defendant had given her an ice pack for her head.

C.P. also stated that in the summer of 1983, when she went swimming in her bathing suit, Bert Williquette would put lotion from a yellow bottle on his "wienie" and would then put his "wienie" in her and B.W.'s "butts." C.P. also pointed to the penis on an anatomically correct drawing of an unclothed boy when asked what she meant by "wienie." C.P. further indicated that on occasion "white stuff" would come out of Bert Williquette's "wiener" when he stuck it in the children's mouths, and when this happened, Williquette would make them swallow the "white stuff." If they refused to do so, Bert Williquette would hit them.

Both B.W. and C.P. also indicated that Bert Williquette would frequently take either a spoon or a cup, go inside the toilet bowl to remove some "poopy," and make the children eat it. If they refused to swallow it, Bert Williquette would strike them.

C.P. said that she had told the defendant about all of the sexual abuse incidents involving her and B.W. but that her mother did not do anything about it. She also indicated to a social worker that she had told her mother on many occasions about the times she and B.W. were beaten by Bert Williquette. Her mother allegedly told C.P. that she would do something about it, but she never did.

A joint preliminary hearing subsequently was held to consider the charges against the defendant and Bert Williquette. B.W., C.P., Dr. Holmes, Sergeant Bies and Allyn Buehler of the Door county sheriff's department testified at the preliminary.

C.P. was either unable or unwilling to answer many of the questions that the district attorney asked her at the preliminary. However, on cross-examination by the defendant's attorney, C.P. testified that she had told the defendant about her dad "putting his wiener up [my] butt" before her dad was put in jail, and that she told her mother about this "many times" a long time ago.

Sergeant Bies testified that C.P. had told him that she informed her mother about "everything" including the abuse inflicted by her father every time it happened. Despite telling her mother, the incidents of abuse allegedly continued.

B.W. testified that he had told the defendant lots of times that his daddy made him eat "poop" and that his mother said "she would tell daddy but she didn't." B.W. also testified he had told his mother "lots" about his father beating him with the metal stick. On cross-examination by his father's attorney, B.W. said he had told no one but his mother about getting hit with the metal stick. On cross-examination by his mother's attorney, B.W. stated that the defendant was never around when his father abused him. She allegedly was at work.

At the close of the testimony, the trial court ordered the defendant bound over on the two counts of child abuse in violation of sec. 940.201, Stats.

On June 6, 1984, the defendant filed a motion to dismiss the information. She claimed that she could not be charged with child abuse because she did not directly commit the abusive conduct. The circuit court granted the motion to dismiss. The court concluded that sec. 940.201, Stats., applies only to the intentional acts of a defendant who directly abuses a child. Accordingly, the mother's alleged failure to take any action to prevent her husband from abusing the children was not covered by the statute.

The state appealed the circuit court's decision to dismiss the charges against the defendant. The state agreed that the defendant did not actively participate in the sexual abuse or beating of her children. However, the state argued that the evidence at the preliminary hearing showed that the children had told the defendant on numerous occasions about the abuse and that she failed to take any action to prevent C.P. and B.W. from being subjected to further beatings and molestation. In fact, the defendant allegedly continued to leave the children in her husband's sole physical custody while she was at work. The state contended that the defendant's acts subjected the children to abuse within the meaning of sec. 940.201, Stats.

The court of appeals reversed the trial court's order of dismissal. The court of appeals reasoned that the defendant could have been bound over for aiding and abetting her husband's abuse of the children, even though the state had not proceeded on this theory. State v. Williquette, 125 Wis.2d 86, 90-91, 370 N.W.2d 282 (Ct.App.1985). The court of appeals agreed with the trial court, however, that the defendant could not be tried for directly committing child abuse based on her alleged failure to protect her children.

The issue in this case involves statutory interpretation, which presents a question of law. This court reviews questions of law without deference to the reasoning of the circuit court or the court of appeals. Milwaukee Met. Sewerage Dist. v. DNR, 126 Wis.2d 63, 71, 375 N.W.2d 649 (1985).

The parties disagree as to whether sec. 940.201, Stats., requires a person to directly inflict child abuse in order to violate the statute. The defendant contends that the legislature intended the statute to apply only to persons who directly abuse children. She maintains that the statute does not impose a duty on her to protect her own children from abuse. The state, however, argues that the statute is susceptible to an interpretation which includes persons having a special relationship to children who expose them to abuse. The state relies on the statutory language ...

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