VICTIMS NEXT DOOR: Part 2d, BEYOND HORRIFIC

.jpg photo of xray showing buckle fracture of distal femur shaft
A buckle fracture of distal femur shaft

“They don’t recognize it as a problem… Even if it’s dysfunctional, it’s all they know. So for them, it’s OK.”

Shannon Massingale, Lakeview Center case manager

The bond of abuse: a twisted love
By Kaycee Lagarde

Those working on the front lines of child abuse cases have just about seen it all: children living in horrific conditions, sexually violated and abused, consistently neglected and in pain.

But what they don’t often see is children asking to be removed from their parents or abusive households, no matter how dire the circumstances.

To an outsider looking in, it may seem illogical for a child to willingly stay in a harmful situation once help is available, but experts say the relationship between abuser and victim — especially parent and child — is not easily broken.

Assistant State Attorney Anne Patterson, lead prosecutor at the Gulf Coast Kid’s House in Pensacola, a child advocacy center for abuse victims, said she encounters it often when prosecuting cases.

“Even though the children may be living under conditions that you or I might be appalled at, they still want to go back to mommy,” she said. “Or even if the parent has done corporal punishment that’s excessive, and the child has been injured, they still want to go back to mom or dad. That bond is very strong.”

In most cases, children are testifying against someone within their family circle, Patterson said, sometimes causing difficulties in prosecution.

“So there always is that relationship to factor in when determining the child’s ability to testify…” Patterson said. “It is amazing how few children, no matter how bad the abuse has been, who will say ‘I don’t want to go home.'”

Keith Ann Campbell, executive director at the Santa Rosa Kids’ House, Santa Rosa County’s child advocacy center, said she and her staff often face the same issue, which can hinder pursuing the case in court.

“I can’t even tell you the number of times when the child has rescinded their testimony and we’ve ended up not being able to prosecute because they don’t like what’s going on and they’re being removed from their uncle or whomever, and it really bothers them,” Campbell said. “Because they love (their abusers).”

Even if the abuse isn’t committed by a family member, Campbell said some abusers spend time “grooming” their victims, carefully building that bond before they ever commit their first act against the child — especially in cases of sexual abuse.

According to the Center for Family Justice, about 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims know their attacker.

“They spend a lot of time building that trust with the child, making them comfortable, making them think they love them and care about them,” Campbell said. “So the child trusts them.”n, who will say ‘I don’t want to go home.'”

The bond can also be strengthened by a sense of comfort, even in horrific situations, said Shannon Massingale, who helps children and families as a case manager at Lakeview Center in Pensacola. This is especially true of children who were born and raised in abusive environments, Massingale said, driving home the importance of awareness and education.

“They don’t recognize it as a problem…” she said. “Even if it’s dysfunctional, it’s all they know. So for them, it’s OK.”

Early intervention through therapy and resources at centers like Lakeview, Gulf Coast Kid’s House and Santa Rosa Kids’ House can help shed light on the abuse, allowing children and families to begin to cope and recover.

“The best thing about a child advocacy center is that the child can get counseling and can be reassured that you didn’t do anything wrong, it’s going to be OK, you did the right thing by telling what was happening to you,” Patterson said. “And just keeping the family supported through the process.”

Gender at Kids House
Breakdown of Gulf Coast Kids House client demographic by gender.

  • Female – 51%
  • Male – 49%

Coming Next:
VICTIMS NEXT DOOR: PART 3: THE CYCLE OF ABUSE

PENSACOLA News Journal

Dallas’ Crimes Against Children Conference

.jpg photo  of Computer Forensics Professional
Dr. Sharon Cooper

Online images linger long after sex abuse, speaker tells Dallas’ Crimes Against Children Conference

“Photos of sexually abused children are “digital crime scenes,” developmental and forensic pediatrician Sharon Cooper says — with small details that can serve as clues.”

Dallas, TX – Dr. Sharon Cooper is familiar with the permanence of the digital world. She’s spent almost two decades tracking down predators who circulate sexually abusive images of children online, only to see those images continue to thrive long after the predator is caught and the victim is rescued.

Cooper, a developmental and forensic pediatrician from North Carolina, who contracts with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, spoke at a session on online abusive images at the annual Crimes Against Children Conference in downtown Dallas on Monday.

An estimated 100 million sexually abusive images of children circulate on the Internet, Cooper said — “but that’s a severe underestimate.”

The 27th annual Crimes Against Children conference, sponsored by the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center, draws about 3,900 criminal justice professionals, and covers just about any topic relating to the investigation of child abuse.

This year’s event features numerous sessions dedicated to cybercrime and to online strategies criminal justice professionals can use to track down perpetrators or victims.

She considers images of sexually abused children to be “digital crime scenes.” Cooper said evidence ranging from a word printed on a T-shirt to chipped nail polish can indicate where a victim is and how long they’ve been abused, respectively.

She said the publication of child sexual abuse images adds “insult to the injury” after the child has already been abused. Once a sexually explicit image of a child begins to circulate, it’s almost certain to remain in the digital world for decades, if not forever.

The Internet, Cooper said, takes the offense beyond the original sexual crime.

“These are not just pictures,” she said.

The Dallas Police Department investigates about 2,500 cases of online child sex abuse each year, a number that continues to rise, said Lt. A.F. Diorio.

Diorio, commander of DPD’s Crimes Against Children Unit, was among those who attended the conference Monday. He sees the number of sessions devoted to online sexual exploitation increase every year — a response to a digital world that has rapidly become more interactive.

“Everybody’s got a device these days capable of transmitting images,” he said. “All that stuff, we have to keep pace with.”

Diorio said the ability to quickly circulate photos and videos has taken trafficking crimes from street corners to the Web classifieds and the dark corners of social networks.

“We have to have a very strong presence and aggressive enforcement on the Internet just like we do on public streets,” Diorio said.

Part of that aggressive enforcement relies on the speedy and thorough investigation of all tips Dallas police receive from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, he said.

Before the Internet made photos and videos more shareable, images of child abuse were limited to contraband magazines. Cooper said that those items were easier to control, that law enforcement believed they had a handle on preventing their widespread distribution.

“Just before the Internet, it was really felt that we had eradicated child abuse stills,” she said. “But then the Internet came out, and we started seeing videos.”

Even then, she said, Internet predators of the late 1990s and early 2000s were still somewhat conspicuous, lurking in chat rooms.

Now, “it’s much easier” for them to engage in cyberstalking, as well as more covert methods of enticement, Cooper said.

Yet more recently, child abuse has been used to extort and intimidate its victims into silence, and not strictly for commercial purposes, Cooper said. The images are used for “revenge porn” or “sextortion.”

There’s no definitive way to permanently delete an abusive image circulating online. Search engines and Internet providers have made efforts to flag and remove such images, but that doesn’t guarantee the image won’t be shared by other means.

“But that’s for the future,” Cooper said. “Our bigger goal is to stop the images from existing in the first place.”

Probation Ordered On Meth, Child Abuse Charges

.jpg photo of Child Abuser
Courtnie Clements

McCOOK, Neb. — A McCook woman was fined and ordered to serve probation on illegal drug and child abuse offenses Monday in Red Willow County District Court.

The offender, 25-year-old Courtnie Clements of 1405 West 16th Street, was sentenced to 30 months probation and ordered to pay $400 in fines after being convicted of felony possession of methamphetamine and misdemeanor child abuse.

Clements accepted a plea agreement in June dismissing a Class IV felony offense alleging possession of alprazolam, while admitting guilt to a Class I misdemeanor offense for committing child abuse negligently, without injury, a Class IV felony offense for possession of methamphetamine and infractions for possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

Clements was arrested in March, along with David Clements and Derek Rouse, following a report of someone snorting a white powdery substance near the military tank at Barnett Park in McCook. Courtnie Clements 2-year-old daughter was taken into the care of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services at the time of the arrests.

VICTIMS NEXT DOOR: Part 2c, BEYOND HORRIFIC

.jpg photo of abused child
Belt marks on the back of an abused child

“His bottom was ripped apart. You don’t expect to see that when they go to the bathroom. Working here you’d think you’d get used to it, but sometimes it takes your breath away.”
Stacy Kostevicki, GCKH executive director

Too many children in our community face violent death and abuse
By Kimberly Blair

Bryson was just 2 years old when he died in July from burns to over 41 percent of his body.

Dariyana was only 14 months old when she died in September of blunt force trauma to the back of her head.

In October, Brodie died at 15 months from injuries consistent with violent shaking.

All three of these promising toddlers died violently while in the hands of parents or caregivers, all of whom are now facing murder charges, right here in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties.

All three cases are disturbing, to say the least.

The case of Bryson is especially heinous — one can only imagine the suffering he must have endured before dying two weeks after investigators say his parents did not seek medical attention for his second- and third-degree burns. Bryson’s parents, Christopher Redd and Gail Perry, say Bryson scalded himself with hot water from a stove. They are facing the death penalty, if convicted.

A physician contracted to provide medical services for Gulf Coast Kid’s House, who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of her work, says these are just examples of the types of child abuse cases often seen in our two-county area. (Editor’s note: The PNJ is using the pronoun “she” when referring to the physician for ease of reading and it should not be taken as an indication of the physician’s gender.)

At times it seems the violence is increasing and getting worse, especially when the cases are fresh in everyone’s minds, she said.

“It surprises me, sometimes, the ones who make the headlines and the ones who don’t,” she said of the cases she knows of in the community through her work. “I have no idea how the media learns of these cases and when they haven’t, why they didn’t. We had a bad month in January with some very egregious forms of child abuse seen in not just one or two, but in six cases.”

Those cases are still under investigation and therefore information hasn’t yet been made public.

There’s no data to prove there is a new epidemic of more egregious violence toward children, the physician said. Confounding the ability to capture concrete data on child abuse is the general under-reporting of abuse, she said. That, and the fact there is no universal definition of child abuse and neglect, so the definitions of maltreatment of children vary between social service, legal and medical professionals. “And I’m not just talking locally but nationally,” she said.

Physicians who treat abused children and professionals who provide services to abused children at Gulf Coast Kid’s House and Santa Rosa Kids’ House say the more atrocious abuse cases seem to come in clusters, and then there’s a lull.

What precipitates the clusters of abuse is not clear.

When there’s an uptick in economic stress, drug abuse and other known risk factors in a family, “the trickle-down effect of that, we know, is more children will be physically abused, sexually abused and neglected,” the physician said.

Age at Kids House
A breakdown of Gulf Coast Kids House demographics by age.

  • 1-6 – 52%
  • 7-12 – 31%
  • 13-18 – 17%

Gulf Coast Kid’s House has seen an uptick in medical exams at its facility, 70 exams in February compared to the average number of 50 monthly, said Executive Director Stacey Kostevicki.

“In the four years I’ve been here, I’m surprised every time I hear about a case you just don’t think can get worse. Then you hear of one that’s worse. To me, it feels like it’s getting worse, but we have nothing concrete to back that up. I didn’t use to hear about going to the hospital to look at kids as much as we do now.”

Most of the children she knows of who are hospitalized are under 2 years old.

“The thing I hear of most often is shaken baby and blunt force trauma… vaginal and rectal tears that require repairs,” the physician said.

Kostevicki doesn’t often see the injuries on children firsthand who come to the Gulf Coast Kid’s House. One day, however, she was asked to help a toddler go to the bathroom.

“His bottom was ripped apart,” she said. “You don’t expect to see that when they go to the bathroom. Working here you’d think you’d get used to it, but sometimes it takes your breath away.”

While her job is tough, she says she hears enough about the cases to know how important her job is.

“I don’t have to live this on a daily basis,” Kostevicki said. “I try to make sure the people who do this on a daily basis here are supported. It’s stuff no one should have to see.”

Signs of abuse

Medical professionals at Gulf Coast Kid’s House have the hard task of diagnosing abuse so the courts or social services can intervene on behalf of the child before they end up on the obituary page or in a newspaper headline.

“The cornerstone of what makes child abuse and neglect difficult at times to diagnose is because the very nature of it is that people don’t run out and say, ‘Hey, I abused my child,'” the physician said. “And, certainly, the mechanisms of injury are explained away by fabricated stories. Our job is to try to piece together the mechanism described to the injury we see and determine if it makes sense and that can be very difficult.”

What troubles these professionals, by the time they see the outward symptoms of abuse, they know opportunities to help these children have been missed.

“Abuse starts, usually, with neglect and poor bonding,” the physician said. “Children who are coming to school dirty and their backpacks empty all school year and you’ve not had contact with the parent. These are warning signs that these parents on some level are detached and unable to meet their child’s needs.”

Preventing the next Brodie, Dariyana or Bryson from facing horrific deaths hinges greatly on raising public awareness of the violence children face and on people speaking up when they see signs of abuse or neglect.

Knowing the signs of abuse is the first line of defense for children.

Gulf Coast Kid’s House team members and advocates provide “Stewards of Children” training and speak publicly about what child abuse is, how to respond and how to identify the tell-tale signs through outreach programs and educational sessions for community providers, such as teachers, church workers and other caregivers who work with children.

Darkness to Light, a national organization that champions the movement to end child sexual abuse, developed the “Stewards” training.

The physician in this story provides educational sessions for the medical community.

“I show slides of what abuse looks like,” she said. “Sometimes you don’t know until you know what this looks like that it could signify abuse.”

She said a tell-tale sign of abuse is bruising on an ear.

“Children typically don’t bruise themselves on the ear through normal interaction or through normal play,” she said. “So ear bruising is a very concerning sign that the child has been psychically abused either through pinching or twisting of the ears or slapped on the side of the head.”

Bruising on the back is unusual because when children play in their normal environment they usually fall forward and not backward over the boney prominences — knees and elbows, she said.

“There are exceptions to that rule,” she said. “But when children are covered in bruises, particularly on their back, that is an unusual place to fall and injure oneself.”

Any type of pattern loop-type bruising or line-type bruising is a concern because that could often be from something like a belt or stick that struck the skin.

Other types of abuse include burns from cigarettes and lighters, torture in the form of starvation, forcing a child to do an “ungodly” amount of sit ups or pushups, sitting or standing in cold water and scald injuries, she said.

Any kind of unexplained head or neck injuries should be considered suspect, she said.

“These are things we look for,” she said. “It does not always mean they were abused but certainly something you should look further into and ask the kids what happened. Kids are forthcoming if they have the language abilities.”

Youngest at highest risk

“The bulk of the life-threatening egregious abuse is in children aged 5 and under,” she said.

As a child becomes older and becomes more able to defend themselves, physical abuse shifts to emotional abuse and the risk of death goes down, she said.

“The vast majority of scald injuries or immersion burns are when children are potty training,” she said. “The parents get angry when they have failed in their abilities to toilet the way they feel they should, so they ‘teach them’ by putting them in hot water or something like that. It’s the escalation of the cause and effect. In a normal circumstance, if your child has a toileting accident you still bathe them, but when you’re angry and abusive, you turn that into a form of punishment.”

Older children are likely to get lashings with belts or other objects.

“Infants are thrown or slammed against something,” she said.

Witnessing someone berating their child in public should be cause of alarm, she said.

Allegations of Abuse
Breakdown of Gulf Coast Kids House demographics by primary allegations of abuse

  • Other – 38%
  • Physical – 20%
  • Neglect – 23%
  • Sexual – 19%

Gulf Coast Kids House – Other abuse allegations include “family violence threatens child” and “drug endangerment”

It should make you think: “What are they doing behind closed doors?,” she said.

“I had a parent once using every expletive word known to mankind in front of me to the child,” she said. “Wow. If this is what she’s saying when I’m in the room, what’s happening at home? My level of concern skyrocketed because people don’t advertise ‘this is what I do to my child.'”

Surprisingly, the road to intervening on behalf of the child is peppered with people who still don’t believe child abuse exists.

“So there’s a long way to go,” the physician said.

But she and others who see the results of abuse firsthand can’t ignore it.

“I’ve gone way past turning off the lights as to whether or not this happens,” she said about the child abuse. “I know it’s out there. I can’t turn my back on it. And to not have involvement in it bothers me more than having involvement and dealing with the associated emotional upset one goes through witnessing firsthand what these children are going through. We call it secondary trauma.”

“Turning a blind’s eye to it helps no one,” the physician said.

Child welfare workers know it’s uncomfortable to intervene or report suspected child abuse because most of the people who would be close enough to the child to recognize the abuse are also closely knitted to the perpetrator or abuser.

But the child’s life and long-term health depends on someone speaking up on their behalf, they said.

“In abuse we know in each episode of physical abuse there’s a pattern of escalation,” she said. “One day the child shows up with a slap to the face. Our concern is if appropriate services are not put into place and intervention, that the next time the child comes in they may have permanent damage, and the next time they may not make it.”

PENSACOLA News Journal