What’s changed since Tramelle Sturgis’s
Child Abuse death?
ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, IN (WNDU) – After the 2011 child abuse death of Tramelle Sturgis, so many people in our community were committed to figuring out what could have been done differently. What, if anything, has changed since then?
Indiana’s child welfare system is under the microscope. Leadership changes, funding cuts and staggering abuse rates have made troubling headlines.
The last director resigned last December in a scathing letter to Governor Eric Holcomb. Mary Beth Bonaventura blasted the Holcomb administration for cuts and management changes that she said would “…all but ensure children will die.”
In February of this year, federal figures showed a spike in child abuse deaths in the Hoosier state.
Around here, the 2011 death of Tramelle Sturgis still haunts our community.
Warnings were there. Tips were received. But still a child died. Has anything changed?
Tricia Sloma learned what happened after the boy’s death in part two of her series “In Harm’s Way.“
Tramelle’s art teacher Sandy Voreis says his artwork stood out. As she admired his self-portrait, she pointed out some special features.
“He even has a sun out, if you notice, for sunshine,” said Voreis. “The colors are not dark. They’re bright, vivid colors.”
Tramelle’s choice of color and content never led on to what was happening at home.
“There is no sadness in that picture,” said Voreis. “I didn’t catch on what was going on by the picture.”
When the young artist was murdered by his father, Terry Sturgis, the difficult news was shared the next morning at school.
“It was such a shock. He didn’t let on,” said Voreis, shaking her head.
Tramelle may have never let on to her, but other teachers say they knew. A teacher and other school staff testified at the murder trial saying they had reported suspected abuse only to be threatened by the angry father.
“It was rough,” Voreis said as she broke down in tears.
While Tramelle’s pictures never revealed his pain, other pictures tell a much different story.
“That’s the image that sticks with me,” said former Metro Homicide Assistant Commander Dave Wells as he thumbed through evidence photos from the murder scene of a 10-year-old boy.
“(The photos) documenting fresh injuries, old injuries, lots of scarring. Just head-to-toe trauma,” observed Wells, who is now the commander of the St. Joseph County Drug Investigations Unit with the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office.
He joined South Bend Police Detective Jim Taylor for an interview about the Sturgis case. Taylor used to work for Metro Homicide and investigated Tramelle’s death. He’s now with the Violent Crimes Division of the South Bend Police Department.
Tramelle’s death remains one of the worst child abuse fatality cases police have ever seen.
Wells and Taylor weren’t surprised that Tramelle and the other children hid their pain so well. It was part of the killer’s control and a grandmother’s neglect of care.
“(Terry Sturgis) knew those kids were going to school, so he dressed them appropriately so nothing would come back on him,” said Wells.
“And explained to those kids, ‘You better not say a thing to anybody or it’s going to be worse when you get home,’” added Taylor.
“The problem grandma (Dellia Castile) has is that she knew exactly what was going on in that house,” said Wells. “And it’s her responsibility, it’s all our responsibility to report any kind of abuse like that to children.”
But in the Sturgis case, people did report the abuse.
The Department of Child Services and police were called to the home, but in every instance, officials didn’t find a problem.
Wells says police had very little information to go on from a 911 call placed months before the murder.
“This is what the officers see when they investigate an anonymous tip,” said Wells, as he held up a picture of the Sturgis home from inside the front door. “That’s a pretty clean, nice looking house. And then there are four or five kids standing here and there are allegations of child abuse, and they’re looking at the kids going…(shrugs) I’m not seeing anything here.”
“You’re limited by how far you can go,” explained Wells. “Without good probable cause or a search warrant, you’re not going to get into that house any farther than the front doors.”
Remember, in Tramelle’s home, the torture happened in the basement, a sad discovery made only after Tramelle died.
“You walk in and you almost want to go, ‘Are you in the right house?’ And then you hit that basement,” said Taylor. “And it’s just like, wow!”
“There were certainly signs that were probably missed by all of us,” said Wells.
But most notably DCS. At one time, all 92 Indiana counties had their own child abuse hotline staffed by local people. To save money, the state moved to a centralized hotline in Indianapolis in 2010, the year before Tramelle died.
Former South Bend Tribune reporter Virginia Black discovered a call placed to the DCS hotline six months before the murder, with the anonymous caller begging officials to “….go there right now….” Instead, the Tribune reported, DCS responded the next day and didn’t make contact with the family for three more days. By then, all seemed fine.
So what’s changed?
“Well, we certainly made great progress on the hotline, and that is due to Tramelle,” said St. Joseph County Circuit Court Judge John Broden. Broden was a state senator at the time. He said the discovery of that call woke up the Indiana Legislature.
“There had been isolated concerns over parts of the state that calls were being dropped. Complaints weren’t getting through. It wasn’t until Tramelle’s death and the incident surrounding Tramelle’s death,” explained Broden. “That instantly brought it to the forefront.”
Today, there’s still one child abuse hotline number, but now calls are answered in five locations: Vanderburgh, Lawrence, Marion, Blackford and St. Joseph counties. It’s staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
“It was no longer just a South Bend, St. Joseph County issue. It was a statewide issue,” said Broden. “And Tramelle’s death did cause significant changes and improvements to the child welfare system.”
But there’s still a lot of work to be done at the state level.
While shrinking funds and leadership changes are debated downstate, officials on the front lines back home are working closer together to make sure another child like Tramelle doesn’t get missed.
Sloma asked St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter if our area children are better off than they were seven years ago.
“Locally? Yes,” said Cotter. “I think we have a much better relationship with DCS now than before this occurred.”
Cotter noted the biggest change with local DCS officials.
“I think the biggest change is in communication between the information that they are gathering and passing it along to law enforcement so that we can act as well.”
But the most important partnership is the community, and everyone plays a role.
“When you think a child is being abused, gosh darn it, contact someone so we can find out so that we can do the best investigation that we can,” urged Cotter.
“I think a lot of people have learned from this as a community,” said Taylor. “Enough’s enough.”
Our community is forever changed by one little boy.
“It’s something we will never forget,” said Voreis. “What scares me is other children that are going through this, and not speaking up and not saying anything. We don’t want something like this to happen again.”
Governor Eric Holcomb ordered a full review of the Department of Child Services after the DCS director’s resignation. That report is expected in June.
The new DCS Director, Terry Stigdon, released this statement to WNDU on Friday afternoon:
“The children DCS serves aren’t just names in a system—each and every one of them has a story, and we find those stories are filled with pain. In my short time as director, I’ve been meeting with passionate DCS employees across the state who show up to work every day trying to make a difference in a child’s life. My job is to remove obstacles that are in the way of that child having a safe and stable home. I look forward to the results of the CWG assessment because the recommendations will act as a guide for how we can improve and identify our needs – which fulfills the ultimate goal of keeping our children safe.”
Remember, if you suspect child abuse, please report it.
In Indiana, the child abuse and neglect hotline is 1-800-800-5556.
In Michigan, the number is 1-855-444-3911.
We have incredible community resources for families who are broken by abuse:
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA)
Youth Services Bureau
St. Joseph County Family Justice Center
Family & Children’s Center, Healthy Families
Child and Parent Services CAPS, Elkhart County
For helpful information, just dial 2-1-1
Prevent Child Abuse St. Joseph County
Healthy Families in St. Joseph County
Voluntary home visiting program providing new parents with support, parenting skills, information on child development and community resources.
NYAP – National Youth Advocate Program
The Villages in Elkhart
Information about becoming a foster parent
White’s Residential & Family Services
Information about becoming a foster parent