Autistic Child Injured In Beating Gets Hometown Welcome

.jpg photo of  man charged with abusing child
Aaron Vanmeter, 21

HANCOCK, Md. – Two months after he was taken to the hospital and placed on life support due to suspected child abuse, 6-year-old Dustin Barnhart of Hancock came home this week.

Hancock residents on Tuesday stood outside to greet him, as signs proclaiming “Welcome Home Dustin” could be seen throughout the town.

The event was put together by town officials, including the Hancock Police Department and the Hancock Walk to End Child Abuse organization.

“It’s phenomenal that you actually get to see a child survive this type of beating,” said Dianne McCusker, one of the co-founders of the child-abuse group.  “I can’t put it in words.”

McCusker said that Dustin’s aunt contacted the group and asked for something to be done to decorate the town to celebrate his homecoming.  Blue ribbons, pinwheels and the signs were put up throughout town, she said.

Dustin was escorted by Bikers Against Child Abuse from a hospital in Hershey, Pa., to Hancock.  The Hancock police escorted him down Main Street in the town and then up to Pennsylvania, where he will be staying with his grandparents.

Hancock Police Chief T.J. Buskirk said Dustin was smiling, waving and giving thumbs up to the people in the town supporting him as he went through.

“We are a close-knit community,” Buskirk said.  “It was heartwarming to see the community of Hancock stands behind Dustin and show him support as he was coming home.”

McCusker said that the event was important to show Dustin that the town supports him.

“In child abuse cases of children that were beaten as severely as he was, the survival rate is very slim, so he truly is a young hero,” she said.  “He’s a fighter.”

The Walk to End Child Abuse is an annual event that takes place in April in Hancock, which is Child Abuse Awareness month.

But McCusker said incidents such as what happened to Dustin prove that awareness cannot be just a one-month campaign.

“Every month, we’re going to have to do something to bring awareness to the community to make people aware that this is happening all the time,” she said.  “(Dustin) is a survivor, but he’s got a long battle ahead of him, and there are other children out here that are living in abuse that we don’t even know of.”

Buskirk agreed. “We took it personal,” he said of what happened to Dustin.  “We need to get the message out there for child-abuse victims and be a voice for the voiceless.”

Dustin was initially taken to Meritus Medical Center on July 3 to be treated for several head injuries and other bruising on his body, according to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.

He was then transferred to Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for further treatment and evaluation.

His mother’s boyfriend, 21-year old Aaron Vanmeter, was arrested and charged with first-degree child abuse resulting in physical injury, first- and second-degree assault, and second-degree assault.

His mother, Ashley Barnhart, was arrested a month later in Pennsylvania and has also been charged with child abuse, assault and neglect of a minor.