Category Archives: StopChildAbuse

Victims Next Door: Part 1-b, CHILDREN IN CRISIS

.jpg photo of victim of Child Abuse
Behind the lines of a war on Our Children

Jerry’s story
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.

Regrets

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.

They wouldn’t.

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.

Better times

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.

Victims Next Door: Part 1-a, CHILDREN IN CRISIS

.jpg photo of victim of Child Abuse
Behind the lines of a war on Our Children

Behind the lines of a war on children
Carlos Gieseken, Kimberly Blair and Kevin Robinson, pnj.com

About this series
These stories are the first in a four-part series spanning eight days focusing on child abuse in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Our goal is simple: to increase awareness of the need to report suspected abuse, in the hopes of saving children and families in our community.
The No. 1 priority of child advocates is to keep children safe. To do that, they must first determine is there a safety risk, what is it and what they can do about it. But when it comes to defining child abuse, it’s not as black and white as one might think.

Behind the lines of a war on children
By Carlos Gieseken

Florida – Throughout Escambia and Santa Rosa counties there are closed doors hiding unspeakable acts of violence, neglect and rape against children.

Overwhelmingly, the perpetrators are the parents, step-parents, caregivers and sometimes siblings of those children. They are the people the children trust; the only family they know.

In most cases, the victims are between 0 and 6 years old. They are small and curious and at an age when life is full of wonder and exploration. Every new experience, large or small, shapes their world view. So when abuse comes, whether violent, sexual or through neglect, it is another experience that forms what they see as a norm of everyday life.

Local impact

The sad reality is that over the last 10 years, the abuse has become more frequent — and more horrific.

In 2014, one out of 14 children in Escambia County was involved in an allegation of abuse according to the Department of Children and Families. In Santa Rosa County, it was one out of 25. Between the two counties, one out of 19 children is involved in child abuse.
That’s a huge jump from just 10 years ago.

Child population
The number of children in the population of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in 2010 vs 2014.

Escambia County:

  • 2010 – 70,877
  • 2014 – 65,306

Santa Rosa County:

  • 2010 – 34,698
  • 2014 – 36,267

Child Welfare Services and Investigations Trend Reports

In 2004, one out of every 25 children in the two counties were involved in a child abuse allegation. Anecdotally, caseworkers and medical providers say the complexity and severity of the abuse is increasing. Children as young as a few months old sustain broken bones, third-degree burns and blunt force trauma above the neck.

In 2014, there were 5,876 children reported as victims in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, enough to fill the seats of Blue Wahoos stadium in Community Maritime Park, with an additional 800 left standing outside.

Advocacy centers

It takes a dedicated, equal force to combat this epidemic and to find short and long-term solutions. That’s where advocacy centers like the Gulf Coast Kid’s House, in Escambia County, and the Santa Rosa Kids’ House, in Santa Rosa County, come into play.

Multiple agencies are housed under one roof so a child only has to go to a single location for medical exams, interviews, depositions and therapy.

Law enforcement, case workers, therapists and prosecutors work in close proximity. The result is more efficient information sharing, a dramatic decrease in the time it takes to investigate cases and an increase in prosecution rates.

Most importantly, the children don’t have to tell their stories over and over again, re-living the abuse each time.

Abusers come from all walks of life

Causes of child abuse vary widely and can include alcohol and drug usage, past abuse, social and economic pressure, immaturity, poor anger management and a lack of parenting skills. There’s no one definer that sets a child abuser apart from those who won’t cross that line.

“You don’t have to be dumb or lower-life to do it,” said Keith Ann Campbell, executive director of the Santa Rosa Kids’ House in Milton. “You can be really smart, the most intelligent men and women do that with their kids and just don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.”

“If you ask any of the therapists here,” said Stacey Kostevicki, executive director of the Gulf Coast Kid’s House in Pensacola, “abuse is all about the power and control you can exert over your victim.”

Over the next week, the Pensacola News Journal will publish a series of stories that examine the causes, symptoms and effects of child abuse in our area. Reporters will examine the short and long-term effects of abuse as it tears individuals and families apart.

The numbers do not lie: No matter where you live in Escambia or Santa Rosa counties, child abuse may very well live next door.

Reporting: The primary weapon against child abuse

It’s a natural inclination to not want to get involved in someone else’s family business, particularly the disciplining of their children. The fear of reporting what maybe isn’t really abuse or the guilt that “we” are the cause of a child being taken away from a family can stop many from reporting abuse.

But in the state of Florida, the Protection of Vulnerable Persons law puts that responsibility squarely on the shoulders of every adult who witnesses abuse. Signed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2012, it says failure to report an incident could result in a third degree felony charge, five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Although difficult to enforce, it underscores the under-reporting of abuse that is too often the status quo.

“In the South, people tend to be polite,” Kostevicki said. “Reporting a family is helping a family. It’s not hurting them.”

It’s the age of the children who are most abused that prompts the largest need for greater reporting by neighbors or family members. Those 6 and under haven’t developed articulate speech and can’t tell others what is happening to them.

“They are the ones not visible in the community unless you are in pre-K,” Kostevicki said. “It will have to come from a concerned neighbor or family member.”

Whenever possible, case workers and law enforcement seek to reunite children who have been removed from their parents as a result of a child abuse claim. They will work to remove the stressors that cause the parent to strike the child, or work on anger management.

In Florida, reports can be submitted confidentially to the Florida Abuse Hotline over the phone at 1-800-962-2873, online at https://reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us/ or by fax at 1-800-914-0004. Staff assess the provided information and determine if it meets statutory criteria for the Department of Children and Families to conduct an investigation.

Warning signs of abuse

Viewed as the most comprehensive child abuse law in the nation, the Protection of Vulnerable Persons law also requires teachers in grades one through 12 to receive training for identifying signs of abuse.

Injuries to the back and the ear are often, but not always, signs of abuse, medical providers say. Changes in behavior such as becoming withdrawn, not eating, not bathing and being fearful around a specific family member are other signs.

“It’s any kind of change in behavior,” said Kelly MacLeod, development and outreach coordinator at the Gulf Coast Kid’s House. “A very gregarious child who all of a sudden is withdrawn. Any extreme change.”

Parents will say, once the child has disclosed abuse, that there were many warning signs the parent didn’t pick up on in retrospect.
“You think it’s them becoming teenagers and all of a sudden they become impossible,” Kostevicki said. “But sometimes it’s because of abuse.”

Long-Term Effects
Children removed from home

Number of child removed to out-of-home care in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties in 2010 vs 2014.

Escambia County:

  • 2010 – 405
  • 2014 – 449

Santa Rosa County:

  • 2010 – 127
  • 2014 – 165

According to the Children’s Bureau, an office of the Administration for Children & Families in Washington, D.C., child abuse can result in depression, anxiety and high-risk behaviors that can make a person more likely to turn to substance abuse. Impaired brain development, poor health and cognitive difficulties are among other long-term effects.

Survivors of abuse will grow up to have their own families and even successful businesses. All the while they will struggle with daily triggers that bring back horrible memories. Victims interviewed by the Pensacola News Journal say they coped with depression and suicidal thoughts for years after the abuse stopped.

Others never quite escape the grasp of the abuse, their warped sense of parenthood negatively affecting how they raise their own children, even if the abuse is not repeated on to them.

There is also a larger economic effect, both in worker productivity and in the strain on human services.

According to a 2011 study conducted by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control with the RTI International Public Health Economics Program, the estimated average lifetime cost per victim of child abuse is $210,012 in 2010 dollars, or $228,356 in 2015 dollars after adjusting for inflation.

The average estimated lifetime cost in lost productivity per child killed by abuse is just under $1.4 million dollars, after adjusting for inflation.

“Compared with other health problems, the burden of child maltreatment is substantial,” the study concluded, “indicating the importance of prevention efforts to address the high prevalence of child maltreatment.”

Gulf Coast Kid’s House: No Formula For Child Abuse

.jpg photo of abuse victim and state attorney
Teri Levin, with Anne Patterson, assistant state attorney

The Kid’s House served 2,600 children in 2014.

Pensacola, Florida – Ninety percent of child abuse is perpetrated by someone the child already knows.

Anne Patterson, an assistant state attorney who prosecutes child abuse cases in Escambia County, will tell you it doesn’t matter whether the child’s family is rich or poor, or whether they are white or black. The pattern repeats itself.

“The scenarios are the same,” she said. “How the perpetrator gets close to the child. How he or she has access to the child. The human dynamic is the same no matter what the socioeconomic class is.”

Although reported cases of child abuse among wealthier families is lower than poorer families, the discrepancy is likely a result of social stigma rather than frequency of abuse, child abuse experts say.

The Gulf Coast Kid’s House is a Child Advocacy Center, or CAC, where several agencies are housed under one roof so children only have a single destination for medical exams, interviews, depositions and therapy, thus reducing the number of times they must re-live the abuse by retelling their stories.

The Kid’s House served 2,600 children in 2014.

Its prevention program aimed to educate and empower school children is in a handful of schools, but its leadership hopes it spreads to all schools, regardless of zip code.

“It includes sexual abuse and people are not normally comfortable talking about that so they want to pretend it doesn’t happen,” said Teri Levin, a Kid’s House board member. “But it does.”

The mission of Gulf Coast Kid’s House, with 2014 stats

Levin was abused by an uncle as a child growing up in Indiana.
“We were not poor. We were not rich,” she said. “We were middle class. An All-American family.”

She didn’t tell her parents about the abuse until she was 40 years old.

“I was afraid to tell them. I didn’t know what would happen,” she said. “I didn’t know how they would perceive it.”

Children who are abused will weigh whether or not to talk to someone about the abuse depending on how safe they feel and how they perceive the perpetrator, according to Nancy S. Hagman, M.Ed., LMH, of Lutheran Services of Florida, a program manager and therapist at the Kid’s House.

She said she will often meet victims who first speak of childhood abuse in their 60s.

“If they don’t feel they will be believed or if the offender has set it up so that they think no one will believe them, for them to go to a parent is very challenging,” Hagman said.

A teacher at an elementary school on Pensacola’s east side recently wrote the Kid’s House to thank them for an education program at the school. As a result of the classes, the teacher said, a child felt empowered to tell a parent of sexual abuse occurring at home and the family is now receiving counseling.

Parents are resistant to the education programs, Patterson said, because they are afraid they will poison the child’s minds. The programs should be seen the same way fire prevention or other safety lessons are taught, she said.

“These programs are designed to educate, but not to frighten,” she said. “To empower but not plant seeds of fear or distress.”

More than 90 percent of cases at the Kid’s House are prosecuted. Bill Eddins, the state attorney for Florida’s First Judicial Circuit is a big supporter of the Kid’s House efforts, Patterson said.

Online, you are guilty even after being proven innocent

Once you’re arrested, your name is tarnished forever.

More and more people are having “Google problems.” They usually look like this:

  1. someone got arrested;
  2. the local newspaper wrote about it;
  3. prosecutors dropped the charges completely;
  4. the person’s record was expunged (in other words, the slate was wiped clean);
  5. the original arrest article, however, is still online.

Now whenever anyone searches that person’s name, the arrest is one of the top Google results even though they’re weren’t guilty.

Google: Your new permanent record

You can imagine the trouble this causes for the individual seeking the article’s takedown: difficulty getting a job, a promotion, or even a date. It seems unfair that even though the judicial system saw fit to remove all traces of the arrest from the person’s record, there’s no corresponding requirement that the local newspaper do the same. What’s the point of expunging a record when anyone with internet access can bring up an old, bogus arrest? Even if a court of law drops the matter, the court of public opinion has condemned that person for life.

The free speech rights of publishers trump those of individuals

In the battle of the newspapers versus the individual’s reputation, the law is on the newspapers’ side. They have a First Amendment right to report true information and are under no legal obligation to remove—“unpublish,” as it’s referred to lately—content, even when significant updates have occurred. In our experience, publishers are generally unwilling to remove articles that were factually accurate when written. Their reasoning ranges from lofty (saying they don’t want to “rewrite the historical record”) to lazy (they have a policy of never changing anything).

Some publications will remove an article, but only if the stars align and several factors exist: the publication doesn’t have a strict policy against unpublishing, we reach an actual human being, we reach an actual human being who’s in a good mood that day, we’re able to provide documentation of the dropped charges or expunged record, and the person to whom we speak decides that the facts of the particular situation warrant removal. It takes hard work, persistence, and luck. Does it happen? Yes, but you can see why it’s pretty rare