Check out the stellar custodial dad in paragraph one.
Brutal child abuse on the rise
By Kate Santich | Sentinel Staff Writer
May 31, 2009
The girl was 7 years old. Her father, raising her by himself, was just 23. Her great offense, Orange County detectives would later learn, was losing the cell phone her dad had given her. Terrified of what might happen, she lied and said it was stolen.
She had reason to be wary.
When the Orlando man learned the truth, he beat his daughter so badly he broke her spine, bruised her spleen and made her face "unrecognizable" to her own grandmother. Then he called relatives in Washington state, persuaded them to fly out and take the girl, and he put her on a plane in a veiled costume.
If anyone asks, he told the girl's aunt, "Just say [she] was in a car accident." Instead, after reaching Washington, relatives took the child to an emergency room. A nurse practitioner said the force of the father's blow might easily have been fatal.
"It was horrendous," said Carrie Hoeppner, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Children and Families' central region, which includes Orlando. "He beat her like he was fighting a grown man."
Though the father — who is not being named to protect his daughter's identity — was arrested in January on attempted murder charges and the girl is recovering, the case continues to trouble child-abuse investigators for other reasons. It is, they say, only one example of a growing trend in which Florida children are being killed or severely injured by the people who are supposed to be taking care of them.
In 2008, the number of fatal child-abuse cases in Central Florida more than doubled over 2007, from 14 to 30. Already this year, the deaths of 59 children are under investigation, though some will likely turn out to be accidental or the result of neglect.
Among the recent cases is the early May shooting spree of 34-year-old Troy Ryan Bellar of Lakeland, who used a high-powered assault rifle to kill his wife, Wendy, and two of their sons, 8-year-old Ryan and 5-month-old Zack. Their 13-year-old son managed to escape to a neighbor's house as his father fired after him. Ultimately, Troy Bellar shot and killed himself in the family's front yard.
"This is one of the most tragic, senseless and horrific crimes we have investigated," said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
That case came a month after 6-month-old Jeremiah Shaneyfelt was found dying at his mother's Osceola County home. Investigators said he had been shaken, head-butted and dropped. His mother's boyfriend, Michael Reid Jr., 27, is now charged with first degree murder in the infant's death. As it turns out, he was awaiting trial on similar child-abuse charges in a case where a 6-month-old was severely injured.
The crimes join a litany of baffling, bizarre abuses in which Florida infants and toddlers have been starved, shot and thrown out of a moving car onto a highway.
"When you think about what you're hearing now in the news, I think unfortunately we will see another increase [in child-abuse deaths] next year," said Major Connie Shingledecker, chairwoman of the state's Child Abuse Death Review Team, which examines cases reported through the Florida child-abuse hot line and verified by investigators. Though the team is only now looking at deaths for last year, Shingledecker notes there already has been a documented increase in familial murder-suicides, which used to be virtually unheard of.
She and other officials say the recession may be a contributing factor.
"We know of whole families being wiped out, not only in Florida but across the country," she said. "And in a lot of the cases, there is a link to economic troubles. People feel such hopelessness. They may be dealing with a dramatic change in their lifestyle, and they see no way out."
Economic problems can lead to depression and a loss of identity when the family's breadwinner, often the father, loses his job, experts say.
"If you're already stressed out — maybe you got laid off from your job or you're worried about the bank foreclosing on your home — you're also more likely to abuse [drugs and alcohol]," said Alan Abramowitz, director of DCF's family safety program. "Add a crying baby, and that can be a recipe for disaster."
Men are more commonly the perpetrators in abuse cases, while women lead in cases of neglect. Statistics show the most typical abuser profile is the boyfriend of a single mom, 18 to 30 years old and unemployed. If the mother is facing financial difficulties herself, she may have the boyfriend move in to share living expenses — or to have free child care while she works.
The fact that these men have no biological bond with the children, and often no prior parenting experience, makes them ill-prepared to deal with crying jags, potty-training accidents and the battle of wills that can come with feeding very young children.
"If you look at the age curve for victims of shaken-baby syndrome, it often correlates with the crying curve of babies — the amount of time each day that babies spend crying," said Dr. Mark Kesler, medical director of the state's child protection team for Orange and Osceola counties. "People don't understand that babies can cry a certain number of hours each day, and that's normal."
It doesn't take much, Kesler notes, to seriously injure an infant by shaking. The difference in size and strength between adult and child coupled with a baby's weak neck muscles and disproportionately large head can quickly lead to permanent brain damage or death.
"All you have to do is lose it for 10 seconds," Kesler said.
Kate Santich can be reached at 407-420-5503 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are a parent or guardian worried about losing control and hurting your child, call 1-800-FLA-LOVE for free, confidential support.
If you suspect a child is being abused, call the state's hot line at 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873) or file online at dcf.state.fl.us/abuse/report/.