By Kimberly Blair
Waxahachie, Texas – Bluebonnets were just beginning to bloom near Jerry and Tabatha Burnett’s home in early April, leading the charge for the state’s famous wildflower display that paints the landscape with an explosion of color.
A similar rainbow of colors spilled out across the floor in the couple’s rural home, tucked among gently rolling hills about an hour outside of Dallas, as their 4-year-old adopted son, also named Jerry, lined up red, blue, green and yellow toy cars bumper-to-bumper only to reassemble them in a perfect triangle.
That geometric arrangement is characteristic of the toddler’s autism, one of nearly a dozen of his different disabilities. Yet despite his challenges, he offers generous smiles, happy chirps and quickly moves from one activity to the next and climbs in and out of Tabatha’s lap. She cuddles him and brushes back his blond hair, revealing what looks like Frankenstein-like scars on his misshaped skull.
Tabatha, 41, calls Jerry’s scars a road map of his head injuries, the lasting signs of one of Escambia County’s worst shaken baby cases in 2011, which still haunts Gulf Coast Kid’s House staffers.
“This is one case where everyone will say, ‘Oh yeah. I remember that one,'” said Executive Director Stacey Kostevicki. “We’ve had worse, but this is so horrible.”
The heartbreaking story of the abuse of baby Jerry, who nearly died after his young father traumatically injured and nearly killed him at age 4 months, is hard to fathom.
What makes his story unforgettable is how his grandparents swooped in when doctors nearly gave up on him. They adopted him and devoted themselves to his recovery and dedicated themselves to turning his tragedy into a platform to raise awareness about early detection of child abuse, with hopes of saving other children from a similar or worse fate.
The Burnetts traveled to Pensacola in October to tell their story at the Kid’s House “Breaking Silence” fundraiser luncheon. The Burnetts continue to speak out because they regret they did not act more aggressively to early signs of neglect that might have spared baby Jerry.
“Their passion and commitment led it to being the second highest fund-raising luncheon in our history,” said Kelly MacLeod, Kid’s House development and outreach coordinator.
They’re expected to be guests at this fall’s luncheon.
“Anyone who has met and worked with the Burnetts knows they are the epitome of patience, faith and family, and I think that magnifies it more because Jerry’s parents did give up their parental rights,” Kostevicki said. “And Jerry was so welcomed by these amazing caregivers who all they want to do is tell Jerry’s story and educate.”
They are the most optimistic and family-centric people Kostevicki says she’s ever met, qualities she believes helped to propel them through their darkest days.
Watching her adopted son play on Easter weekend, Tabatha Burnett listed the disabilities his father left him with – traumatic brain injury, legally blind, seizures, right-sided weakness, fluid on the brain, headaches, developmentally delayed, sensory processing disorder, autism, nerve damage in his ankle. She shows off a 50-pound bag filled with files detailing his medical journey in the first four years of his life.
That journey has been marked by 21 surgeries with a price tag exceeding $3 million. His latest surgery was on April 22, to repair a piece of metal mesh that came loose from his scalp. Since he is adopted, Medicaid picks up part of the tab —which illustrates the high cost of abuse in our society, Kostevicki pointed out.
Most of the surgeries involved reassembling his shattered skull or repairing damage from an infection that set into his skull after his first surgery in Pensacola. Some of those surgeries required removing brain matter. Tabatha knows they will surely face more as Jerry grows.
When asked what baby Jerry was like when she saw him for the first time Tabatha chokes back tears. “He was healthy and normal,” she said of the week her daughter, Brittany and son-in-law Steven Tutwiler brought the 10-day-old baby from Pensacola to meet the family in Texas in December 2010.
What should have been a happy visit, was marred by suspicions that her daughter and son-in-law were seriously neglecting some of the infant’s needs. The young couple, both serving in the Navy at Pensacola Naval Air Station at the time, were failing to change his diapers or feed him when he was hungry without being reminded. They seemed detached from him.
Like many people faced with similar circumstances, the grandparents rationalized away the signs as first-time-parent-inexperience. They didn’t want to step out of bounds and push the issue with the young parents, believing that if they did the couple might refuse to let the grandparents see him. They also prayed things would improve.
One of the couple’s five daughters, Elizabeth Baker, traveled back to Pensacola with Brittany and Steven to spend more time with her new nephew, only to discover they had little interest in taking care of him.
“At night, they would shove his bassinet into the living room with me, and would not tell me,” she said. “I was sleeping on the couch. It would be pitch black. At 2 a.m., I’d hear him cry. He was wet and hungry. He had not eaten for hours. I’d give him a bottle and change his diaper, and he was so happy.”
She saw no signs of Jerry being a difficult baby that might push the parents to the brink. She was also troubled about Steven mistreating his cats.
When Elizabeth prepared to return home, she was surprised her sister wanted to send the baby with her.
“They let me, an 18-year-old, take their 4-week-old baby across the country on an overnight bus ride,” she said. “He was so quiet. He just sat there and looked around. People on the bus said he was the best behaved baby.”
During the two weeks the baby was in Texas, his parents did not check on him, the family says.
That was early January 2011.
When the couple came to pick up their son a few weeks later, “My husband Jerry didn’t want (baby Jerry) to go back home with them,” Tabatha said. “We told them ‘we’re here for you if you need an out. If you’re overwhelmed, we’re here.’ But we did not know any physical abuse was happening until he was actually hospitalized. It was devastating.”
On April 27, 2011, when baby Jerry was just 4 months old, the grandparents received a text message, not a phone call, from Brittany that would change their lives forever.
That text read: “Headed to Sacred Heart Hospital. Jerry’s having seizure, vomiting, and not breathing.”
The Burnetts were stunned. They waited for more than an hour for an update on his condition before calling Sacred Heart emergency room seeking information. Later a nurse called and told them the baby was being rushed into surgery with a brain hemorrhage.
They had not heard from Brittany since the initial text. So the couple jumped into their car and drove the 12-hour drive to Pensacola, calling the hospital along the way for updates.
“Halfway between Texas and Florida, the doctor said we won’t make it there in time before Jerry passes,” Tabatha said. “That was after his surgery, and that was probably the most devastating thing.”
Even more sobering was learning his injuries were caused by blunt force trauma. “We knew then that someone had done something to him,” Tabatha said. “That Steven or Brittany had done something to him.”
When they finally arrived at Sacred Heart’s pediatric intensive care unit they believed it was a miracle the baby was still alive. But they were shocked to see the tiny, unconscious bundle with white bandages wrapped around his bulging skull and face, and tubes and wires stuck into and onto different parts of his fragile body. He only weighed 16 pounds. A pacifier in his mouth was the only indication there was a baby under there, Tabatha said.
Jerry, 45, a former Reeves County Texas Sheriff’s Office investigator and private investigator, was appalled.
Jerry by the Numbers
Charting the life of a remarkable youngster.
10 days old
Jerry’s age the first time his grandparents, Tabatha and Jerry Burnett, see him and suspect his parents are neglecting him.
“I was disgusted to see him in that situation and to know he was in that situation because someone put him there,” he said. “It was difficult for us as grandparents. I’m retired now, but I’ve been an investigator most of my career, and I felt early on Steven was the one that did something to him. It was very difficult for me to sit there and have to deal with this while waiting on the police to make an arrest. That was frustrating.”
Steven initially hatched a lie he fell on the baby. To the family’s dismay, their daughter supported his lie.
“When they finally arrested Steven and our daughter still supported Steven, even though he was locked up, that’s when we made the decision we had to adopt (the baby),” Jerry said. “There was no stopping us at that point.”
Their anger grew when they learned the full scope of the trauma their grandchild endured at the hands of Steven: four broken ribs and his right leg broken in three places two weeks earlier; along with newly broken ribs, traumatic brain injury, bilateral retinal hemorrhaging, laceration on his chin, bruising on his face and an open wound on the back of his head.
Steven, 20, at the time, told Escambia County investigators that he became frustrated and angry with the baby for crying and pushed the infant backward causing him to hit his head on the floor. Brittany was at work at the time. He had left the Navy just weeks prior.
He’s now serving 17 years in Graceville Correctional Facility, less than two hours from Pensacola, on three counts of aggravated child abuse. The Burnetts said he’s only expected to serve half that time, even though Florida Department of Corrections shows his release date is July 4, 2027 —Independence Day.
Baby Jerry will never have independence from the injuries he suffered.
Steven’s prison records states he sports two tattoos, one on his right arm that reads “What you give is what you get,” from a song by American heavy metal band Ratt.
Grief, anger, resolve
Tabatha would spend four months in Pensacola, 28 days of that standing sentinel beside baby Jerry’s bed, first in intensive care and then in the children’s wing, showering him with love and prayers and documenting progress doctors initially said he’d never make.
“I was with him every day and he’d smile and I could play with him and do stuff with him,” Tabatha said. “That helped with the emotional part.”
Jerry was there too, except for the days he had to fly back and forth between Pensacola and Dallas. But they both resolved to adopt the baby, not matter what it took, and raise him as their son and the ninth child in the family. They refused to leave Pensacola without him.
It was a hard and costly journey. The Burnetts slid $30,000 into debt. They had to rent an apartment in Pensacola and equip it with everything baby Jerry would need to pass a home visit for the Florida adoption process. At the same time, they had to equip their home in Texas with the same baby furniture and supplies, along with the special medical equipment he would need, to also pass a home inspection there. They also incurred legal fees.
They easily got baby Jerry’s parents to give up their parental rights. And while the Burnetts waded through the adoption process, baby Jerry was released from the hospital and sent to a medical foster home for 21 days.
“That was pretty devastating for us,” Tabatha said.
They finally got custody of him and returned to Texas on Aug. 27, 2011, exactly four months to the day from when they arrived in Pensacola.
Every year, baby Jerry celebrates three birthdays: His actual birth date, the day he became a new person on April 27, 2011, and the day he was adopted.
Once the Burnetts got past those early days of the baby’s recovery, they turned their attention to providing little Jerry the best life possible, healing from the trauma and supporting Gulf Coast Kid’s House by telling their story. The staff there were instrumental in supporting them on their journey.
“The big thing we want to get across to people when we talk to them is, No. 1, educate them on what our journey was, and how we did what we did, and how we got the results we got,” Jerry said. “And No. 2, is to be able to raise money for the Gulf Coast Kid’s House, because when you’re talking about $30,000 we were out, that’s hard for a family to come up with. For people to give money to Gulf Coast Kid’s House so they can help other families in need, is imperative.”
Kostevicki said it rare to see family members of an abused child go to the lengths the Burnetts did in supporting their adopted son.
“Their drive and passion and commitment to stick with it and do whatever they had to do, you don’t typically see that unparalleled resolve and conviction,” she said. “They knew what they needed to do. And they overcame a lot of obstacles to do it.”
Despite having to face more surgeries, it’s clear little Jerry has found his place in a loving home.
With the help of physical therapy, home-schooling and the support of eight siblings who “love having a baby brother,” baby Jerry is defying his original diagnosis at Sacred Heart.
“They told us after we met with the doctors, if he makes it he’ll be pretty much vegetative, and he’ll only recover 10 percent,” Tabatha said. “A few weeks later they said, ‘maybe 30 percent.’ And by the time we left the hospital, they said, ‘maybe 50 percent.’ He’ll never be 100 percent the baby he was born to be on the morning of Dec. 4, 2010. He’ll never be that person. If he speaks, that will be great. If he doesn’t. That’s OK, because he smiles.”
Another sign the family is healing, Brittany recently filed the papers to divorce Steven. Baby Jerry is now technically her brother.
“She knows he’s her baby brother now, and everyone in the family always wanted to have a baby brother, and everyone is happy.”
Tabatha has forgiven Brittany. Jerry still struggles with that. There’s been plenty of disagreements and blaming.
“There has been some forgiveness, especially on Tabatha’s part,” Jerry said. “I don’t trust Brittany to be alone with Jerry, and I don’t allow that. But she comes over and sees him.”
Elizabeth says she still finds it hard to believe anyone in their large, loving family would be abused or be an abuser.
While her sister Brittany did not physically abuse Jerry, she neglected and abandoned him, which are forms of abuse.
“There’s just so much involved,” Tabatha said. “Brittany was not prepared to be a mother. She said she wanted to believe in her husband. And she wanted to believe what I taught her. I always taught my kids family is everything. I’m old-fashioned, and told my kids when you marry, you stand by your husband.”
At this time, there is no forgiveness for Steven, who has never expressed genuine remorse to the family, Tabatha said.
“On April 28, 2011, we all went to the police department and gave statements. On the 29th we went to juvenile court for the first time and he and Brittany showed up… and his mother and family,” Tabatha said. “He got out of the car and said, ‘I’m sorry,’ and gave me this pouty face and smiled. If I had a gun, I’d probably would have shot him.”
Steven’s family has had nothing to do with baby Jerry.
Inspired by baby Jerry, Elizabeth became a licensed professional nurse who is dedicated to working with abused or medically fragile children in foster care. She still has a hard time understanding why she easily bonded with Jerry, and his mother and her older sister didn’t, which underscores the complexity issues surrounding child abuse.
“As human beings we are programmed to feel sympathy for kids because they are so defenseless,” she said. “That’s the way we evolved. Whenever (baby Jerry) got fussy, I didn’t get angry with him. He was just a baby. I connected with him. She did not.”
Elizabeth says seen some pretty horrifying cases as a nurse and believes child abuse is more prevalent than most people believe.
She and her mother both are now much more aware of the signs of abuse, and they don’t hesitate to intervene when they see someone mistreating or losing their patience with a child.
Tabatha has walked up to people in stores who clearly were losing their temper with their children.
“I used to be at the point that I wanted to go over and body slam them,” she said. “But now I walk up and say: ‘Are you OK? Do you need to step away from your kid?'”
Tabatha has also found ways to deal with a waitress or the person in line at the grocery store who stops and looks at baby Jerry, mostly after his head is shaved for another surgery, and asks, “What happened to him?”
“I’ll say he’s had surgery, then I go into the 21 questions about why,” she said.
Some days she simply says: “His father tried to kill him.”
It helps raise awareness, she said. “Sometimes people will say, ‘Hey, look at that poor little boy.’ There’s nothing poor about him. He’s happy-go-lucky. He’s smart.”
But there’s one question Tabatha is not eager to answer.
“Someday, when he can communicate and understand better, we’re going to have to sit down with (little Jerry) and explain what happened to him,” she said. “And that’s probably going to be harder than the drive we made to Florida on April 27, 2011.”
The abuse of Jerry Burnett by the numbers
Dec. 4, 2010: Jerry was born.
10 days old: First time his grandparents, Tabatha and Jerry Burnett saw baby Jerry, and detected his parents were neglecting him.
April 27, 2011: Jerry, at 4 months old, is rushed to Sacred Heart Hospital in critical condition with a fractured and crushed skull, swollen brain, broken ribs and leg.
11 hours: Number of hours it took his grandparents to rush from Dallas to Sacred Heart in Pensacola.
30 minutes: The amount of time it took them to get permission to see baby Jerry, who was under protective custody.
21: Age of father Steven Tutwiler when he injured his infant son, Jerry. Steven Tutwiler was taken into custody on 5/6/2011 in Escambia County, Florida.
20: Age of Jerry’s mother, Britanny Tutwiler when her infant was injured. (She’s now 24.)
8-by 11.5-centimeters: The size of the opening in skull up until July 2014.
2 weeks: While in the hospital, doctors discovered that four of baby Jerry’s broken ribs and his broken leg were two weeks old.
28: Days in the hospital with 14 of those days in pediatric intensive care unit.
4: Number of surgeries at Sacred Heart Hospital.
21 days: The amount of time baby Jerry spent in medical foster care while his grandparents equipped an apartment in Pensacola to take him in while they began the process to adopt him.
May 6, 2011: The day Steven Tutwiler was arrested for injuring his son.
Nov. 14, 2011: The day Steven Tutwiler was sentenced to serve 17 years, 3 months and 2 days in a state penitentiary for abusing his son. (Because of gain time in the state of Florida, he will only serve half that sentence)
21: The number of surgeries Jerry has undergone so far since his father injured him. The latest surgery was on April 22.
3: The number of different types of therapies – occupational, physical, and speech – Jerry has once a week. (He used to have these therapies three times a week)
$30,000: Amount of debt the Burnett’s incurred while stay by their grandson’s side in Pensacola and to adopt him.
August 27, 2011: The day they left Pensacola for Texas with their newly adopted son.
April 24, 2012: Jerry’s adoption was final.
14 months: How old he was when he started walking, “very unstably.”
12: Number of disabilities as a result of his injuries
3: Number of birthdays Jerry celebrates: His real birthday. The day he adopted and the day he was so severely injured he became a new person.