Carmel Valley woman’s groundbreaking career in law enforcement to be recognized by the San Diego Police Foundation
By Kathy Day
Donna Pence credits a fictional character in part for helping her learn that she could do anything she wanted to do.
She grew up in the South in a traditional family where careers like nursing and teaching were encouraged but, instead, Pence became the first female agent in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
A Torrey Hills resident since 2001, she laughs as she tells about finding the book that made a difference in her life while shopping with her mother. She spotted a book cover with a red background and a woman in a catsuit. It was the first in the Modesty Blaise series, written by Peter O’Donnell and based on a child raised during World War II.
“She was like a female James Bond …” Pence said. “She was a kickass woman — not subordinate and not anyone’s sexual playmate.”
She held those memories through the years as she pursued her career in law enforcement, which included 25 years with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). She retired from the TBI in 2001 when her husband Charles Wilson became senior director of the Chadwick Children’s Center at Rady Children’s Hospital. Today she has invested her more than 35 years of experience in Pence-Wilson Training & Consulting Inc., sharing her knowledge about child abuse, investigative techniques, teamwork and mental health.
And, on March 13, Pence will be one of three women recognized by the San Diego Police Foundation at its Women in Blue awards luncheon “whose outstanding achievements in non-traditional careers have paved the way for today’s women leaders in San Diego.”
Pence did not start out pursuing a career in law enforcement. While taking Nursing Math 101 at Vanderbilt University she realized that she didn’t have the aptitude for math and science “even though I looked good in white and loved the cap.” So she shifted to what they called “unclassified studies.”
Married at the time to a tai kwon do instructor, Pence began taking self-defense classes from him and worked her way up to being a co-instructor in classes that included a number of police officers. They told her then-husband that he should join the Nashville Police Department.
“I knew I wanted to be in a helping profession so I thought I’d try, too,” she said, noting that their exam scores were nearly equal and even one answer in the interview was identical because they were like minded about the job.
When she was asked during her interview where she saw herself, she answered “patrol.” The interviewer had a different perspective, so he offered her a job as a dispatcher, explaining that since they were hiring her husband they couldn’t hire her.
Instead, she went to work at Vanderbilt as a campus police officer where she learned to shoot and got some laughs out of being called “a campus pig” by her friends.
The experience of being rejected brought out a side of her she hadn’t seen before. That was when Melody Blaise came back to her.
“This character in the back of my head made me accept that I could do anything,” Pence said.
Persistence paid off and Pence and four other women were accepted into the next police academy class six months later.
But being accepted was only part of the battle, she recalled, adding that it was clear during the 17 weeks of basic training that the trainers’ mission was “to wash these women out … it was 17 weeks of hell week.” It didn’t work, though, as Pence finished the training.
She was assigned to the parks patrol division where she honed her skills before moving to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) after making a connection through her husband’s chance encounter with the agency’s director over a break-in at their apartment complex.
Initially the TBI didn’t know what to do with its first female special agent, but that, said Pence, was “good news. I got to do a variety of things the male agents didn’t get to do.
“I wanted to improve the treatment of women and children,” she said. In addition to working narcotics and homicide cases, she specialized in serious abuse and child homicide cases, and trained others in investigative techniques. After 10 years undercover, she was moved to what she called a “plodding” assignment with the Medicaid fraud unit.
About that time, new legislation on child abuse was proposed and a task force had been formed to evaluate it.
“I hated it,” she said, in part because it focused only on returning children to their families when sometimes that isn’t the best solution. So in her spare time, she analyzed the proposal and sent her analysis to the director.
“I was just venting since they hadn’t consulted law enforcement about what they would do,” Pence said.
Impressed, her boss assigned her as his representative on the Child Sexual Abuse Task Force. It was there that Pence, now divorced from her first husband, met Charles Wilson, a social worker whose views on keeping families together when abuse has been alleged, were opposite of hers.
They got to know and respect each other, but “it was the longest time before we saw each other socially,” she said. After dating for two years, they married in what friends said was “a marriage born of child abuse.”
Their relationship has been one of sharing their job experiences, with both focused on finding answers — as Wilson puts it — “to why big people hurt little people.”
Together they wrote the book “Team Investigation of Child Sexual Abuse: The Uneasy Alliance,” which she said helped build “the rules of the game.” The book, according to Sage Publications, “focuses on how to develop, operate, and maintain effective investigative teams. It examines how law enforcement officers, child protection workers, prosecutors, medical professionals, and mental health clinicians can form coordinated investigative teams for fact finding, child protection, and criminal prosecution.”
When Wilson took his job at the Chadwick Children’s Center, Pence stayed in Tennessee for a year so she could retire with 25 years under her belt, making her the first woman hired and the first woman to retire from the Tennessee bureau.
When Pence landed in San Diego, it was 2001. Although she first wanted to work as an investigator for the district attorney’s office, she landed a job as a child welfare training coordinator and researcher with what is now the Academy for Professional Excellence at San Diego State University. Last September, she decided to step out on her own, continuing to share her passion and knowledge.
Through the years, she has gained perspective on the emotional impacts trauma has not only on those being investigated but on those who deal with the cases.
She said she’s been lucky to be able “dump (her) toxicity” on her husband, but sometimes she’s turned to professionals for help. Other times she finds just taking time out for a manicure and pedicure helps — and occasionally she has resorted to more unusual tactics.
One time after a particularly difficult case involving a child’s death, she said she found herself pacing around the house unable to focus.
She picked up the microwave instructions, which said not to put a raw egg in the appliance. Wondering why, she said, “I have an ornery streak and set it for three minutes.”
After 10 seconds, she said, “I knew it was really stupid.”
Then came 30 seconds. At one minute, “I started giggling. At 1:20 it exploded and scared the heck out of me.”
And then she started laughing. “The heaviness in my chest had burst with the egg.”
The downside: It took an hour to clean out the microwave, “but by then I was calm.”
More normal tension relief comes from reading novels – or working on the one she’s writing in which all the people who have made her mad get killed off. She also enjoys autocross racing.
“Driving really fast on a race course focuses my mind,” she said.
With the issues she has dealt with during her career, it is not surprising that Pence has needed to find unique ways to release stress over the years. Child abuse and neglect happen on a much larger scale than most people realize, she said.
“We picture the worst of the worst – broken bones or the little girl who is 10 and pregnant,” Pence said, adding too often ignored are the “day-to-day insults, a slap to the head, name calling, or the ‘I don’t love you and wish you were never born’ comments.”
For Pence, being in a profession where she has seen horrific things continues to be a learning experience. However, she believes she’s made a contribution by helping her fellow law enforcement officers, social workers and even defense attorneys learn a new way of looking at the issues pertaining to child abuse and neglect.
Donna M. Pence:
Owner, Pence-Wilson Training and Consulting and author.
Pence has been involved in training hundreds of child protective service workers in Southern California and travels nationally and internationally to train and consult on such topics as child abuse investigation and interviewing; multicultural, multidisciplinary team development, and truth evaluation in forensic interviews.
First female special agent for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation; San Diego Police Foundation’s Women in Blue award recipient; attended FBI’s National Academy; established Tennessee’s Missing Child Program; author of numerous professional publications.
Husband Charles Wilson, executive director, Chadwick Children’s Center at Rady Children’s Hospital.
Daughters Lauren, a Canyon Crest Academy and UCSD graduate, plans to attend law school in the fall; Alexis, a San Dieguito Academy and MTU graduate, manages Loss Prevention for Hibbetts Sporting Goods Distribution Center in Birmingham, Ala.; and Krista, who graduated from high school and college in Tennessee and is now a psychiatric nurse in East Tennessee. She has two children.
Reading and shopping. “I am an information hoarder, buying books on topics that interest me.”
Favorite book is “The Black Marble” by Joseph Wambaugh.
“The Philadelphia Story”
Saladita, in the pool or hammock, with an interesting book
Favorite stress reduction:
My philosophy is “Adapt, Adopt, Become Adept”
Learn more about Donna Pence
Attend the event honoring her