A just retired Oak Park police sergeant and a mostly retired former Wednesday Journal reporter are writing a book about the life and death of Sheila Mack, the Oak Park woman notoriously murdered in Bali in 2014. Mack’s daughter Heather Mack and a boyfriend, Tommy Schaefer, were convicted in Indonesian courts on charges related to the death.
But Rasul Freelain and Bill Dwyer say that their book, titled Malice: When Lambs Become Wolves, will also focus on CVP, a largely undiscussed and criminally overlooked circumstance when children and teens commit violence against their parents or caregivers.
Freelain, who retired last week after a 20-year career in the Oak Park Police Department, said, “This is never spoken about. But as a cop I saw incidents of it.”
Dwyer and Freelain said laws in Illinois and other states protect children who are abused by parents and other adults through the Department of Children and Family Services. Elders are protected from abuse under the Department of Human Services. Adults and children facing domestic abuse are protected under specific laws, including orders of protection.
But said Dwyer, “There is no scenario under Illinois law, no remedy or method, that protects a parent from violence brought within the family by a child or teen.”
Freelain said local police departments and state’s attorney’s offices can make strong efforts to offer protection to victims of CVP, but there is not a mechanism to prosecute cases. And, the authors said, in the absence of open discussion of this circumstance, parents feel shame in both being victimized and reluctance to see their children arrested.
Freelain said he met Sheila Mack for the first time on Feb. 16, 2011 when she arrived at the Oak Park police station in village hall looking for help. Freelain took her to a department conference room and listened as Mack described the situation in their Linden Avenue home with her 15-year-old daughter, Heather. “She said it was embarrassing to talk about and ‘that I should not be intimidated by my child but I am,’” said Freelain.
Mack had a broken arm at the time of the first interview. Freelain asked if her daughter had caused the injury and she said yes. When Freelain said that under domestic abuse laws he needed to arrest the teenager, Mack became upset and said, “My child is not a criminal.” She then left village hall but returned the next day and told Freelain that upon arriving home the previous day, her daughter attacked her physically and took her phone from her.
“We arrested Heather Mack that day,” said Freelain.
It was the first of five times that Oak Park police would take Heather Mack into custody. Freelain made four of those arrests.
Over the course of years there were dozens of police calls to the Mack house. Freelain responded to those calls whenever he was on duty. “Oak Park police did everything we could do under the law,” said Freelain. Beyond arrests, the younger Mack was referred to social service agencies, twice hospitalized in mental health facilities and given community service.
Mack, who over time came to speak freely to Freelain, admitted that she felt “terrorized” by her daughter and ultimately feared for her life.
Dwyer talked about the reluctance of parents to acknowledge the depth of the problems they face. “These are their children. There is an approach/avoidance reaction. You don’t want to see cuffs on your kids. But the system does not even acknowledge the problem.”
Freelain said the unspoken issue of CVP is not addressed because the “gaps are based on holes in the law.” Unlike adults in domestic violence cases, he said, there is no mandatory cooling off period where alleged perpetrators are held overnight without bond; there is a mandatory court appearance and a second court appearance 30 days later. Instead, after a child’s arrest they are most often released into the custody of their parents, who are their victims.
Freelain said Illinois’ current child case law is based on rejuvenation and that every new arrest starts the process over with no recognition it might be for a repeated incidence of violence toward a parent.
Dwyer and Freelain said their book, which they hope will be published in 2023, will be “unapologetically supportive of Sheila Mack. People loved her. She had a wide circle of friends.”
Mack, said Freelain, “was a caring person who was trying everything” to resolve challenges with her daughter. “She was torn about how to hold her accountable without losing her.”
Dwyer and Freelain are increasingly confident that friends and family of Sheila Mack will choose to be interviewed for the book. Dwyer will travel to Bali this fall to do reporting there. Schaefer remains in prison there, convicted of Sheila Mack’s murder. Heather Mack and her daughter, Stella, left Bali last winter after Heather Mack’s release from prison. However, Mack was arrested at O’Hare Airport immediately on her arrival in the U.S. and is currently in federal custody facing an array of charges related to the murder of her mother.
Dwyer says their hope is to raise awareness of CVP with a goal of changing state and federal laws. He points to the role of public awareness over time in changing perceptions and then laws related to drunk driving and domestic violence. “We need to give police officers tools and we need to take away their discretion in how to respond to such cases,” said Freelain.
“This topic needs to be discussed,” said Dwyer. He and Freelain hope their book will spur that discussion.