When a sexual predator wears a badge and is supposed to protect teens | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey

There’s this picture from 2014, of nine awkward-looking teens in a parking lot. Their hats and T-shirts mark them as members of the Stoughton Police Explorers Program, which gave mentoring, training, and ride-alongs to kids who want to be in law enforcement some day.

It’s safe to say most, if not all, of the kids in that picture looked up to police officers at the time, and wanted to be just like them.

Their mentors were so utterly undeserving of that admiration, it turns the stomach to think about it.

At the end of the line is Sandra Birchmore, sporting an impish grin, her whole life ahead of her. Around 16 at the time, Birchmore looked much younger, a good foot shorter than the other kids. By all accounts, the girl worshiped police officers and desperately wanted to be one. That ambition seemed to give structure to her difficult childhood.

But at least one of the officers who was supposed to be mentoring the girl in that picture was preying on her at the time, according to an internal affairs report and a civil complaint. They allege police Detective Matthew Farwell, an instructor in the Explorers program, initiated sexual contact with Birchmore when she was 15 and he was 27. His twin brother, William Farwell, another instructor, also had sex with her, as did Robert Devine, a former deputy chief who ran the program, according to Stoughton police. A civil suit accuses all three men of grooming the vulnerable Birchmore and having sex with her, including in patrol cars. In court, an attorney for her family said they “passed her around like she was a toy.”

In her teens, Birchmore had lost her mother and grandmother, who were raising her, then her aunt. She struggled with mental health issues through adolescence and into adulthood. She died by suicide in February 2021, when she was three months pregnant. She told friends Matthew Farwell was the father. He was the last person to see her alive, on Feb. 1.

It takes a special kind of depravity to prey on someone so young, so troubled, so full of trust and admiration for those sworn to serve and protect her. The fact that three officers in the same department allegedly joined in exploiting this girl is just diabolical. That they apparently kept it going for years, with none of them breaking ranks, is unfathomable.

If only it was unusual, too.

Predators abused for years with apparent impunity in churches, the Boy Scouts, in Hollywood, and elsewhere, destroying the lives of kids and teens for whom they were supposed to be caring. Police Explorers programs across the county have been sites of abuse, too. Police departments in Kentucky, California, New York and elsewhere have been held to account for the abuse of kids in their explorer programs. In some of these cases, the predators’ colleagues helped cover up the abuse.

None of the three men who exploited Birchmore is still with the Stoughton police, whose chief called them unfit to serve. Matthew Farwell is prohibited from working in law enforcement in Massachusetts, and the state Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission is weighing similar prohibitions for William Farwell and Devine. The attorney general and the FBI are investigating the case. Birchmore’s estate is suing the officers for essentially driving her to suicide and the town of Stoughton for failing to properly vet the police officers, who all deny wrongdoing.

It’s clear all three were sketchy enough to earn extra scrutiny when it came to putting them in charge of defenseless kids: During their own teen years, the Farwell brothers posed as police officers, going so far as to pull cars over. And Devine was demoted from deputy chief to patrol officer in 2017 after an internal investigation found he lied to investigators looking into his abuse of power against a woman with whom he had had an extramarital affair.

It’s clear now, if it wasn’t then, that none of the three had any business being anywhere near a badge and a gun, let alone near impressionable kids.

And especially not near the grinning girl in that picture, at the start of a road she thought would lead to her dream. Seven years later, she was gone.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at [email protected].

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