Washington County, TN – More doctors testified Thursday at the trial of a Washington County, Tennessee man accused of shaking his baby so hard it caused serious injuries.
Day two started with Dr. Melinda Lucas, one of the doctors who first analyzed 7-month-old Jaden Whitaker, taking the stand for cross-examination by the defense.
The defense tried to create doubt, but after looking at test results, and since Jaden had no prior health issues, the doctor ruled out the theory of a bleeding disorder or stroke, staying with her original conclusion.
“In your professional opinion you said this was a shaking injury,” defense attorney David Robbins asked. “Acceleration-deceleration, shaking, yes,” Lucas, a pediatric intensive care physician at Niswonger Children’s Hospital at Johnson City Medical Center, testified.
Dr. Lucas was one of four doctors who testified for the prosecution.
Next to the stand was Dr. Anna Kosentka, a child neurologist from Knoxville.
She told the jury her initial examination showed severe internal brain bleeding and retinal hemorrhage, something very unlikely for an infant to experience.
“Most of the time this is a non-accidental trauma,” Dr. Kosentka said. “Sometimes we see this same form of injuries when a child is in a car accident.”
During testimony, doctors came up with similar conclusions, and said one explanation fits.
“Something happened to this child in the form of shaking, acceleration-deceleration force, effecting his brain, causing this bleeding,” Dr. Kosentka said.
Whitaker’s wife is expected to testify Friday. The defense is still deciding if Whitaker will take the stand.
He’s charged with aggravated child abuse, a crime that carries anywhere from 15-25 years in prison.
Santa Fe, NM – Gov. Susana Martinez delivered this year’s State of the State address on Tuesday, which also marked the start of the legislative session.
A big budgetary shortfall has demanded nothing but belt-tightening in recent years, but Gov. Martinez said the state managed to increase funding for child protective services. Still, she drew on the names of kids killed through abuse in New Mexico and called for stiffer criminal penalties.
“If you kill a child, a law enforcement officer or a corrections officer, you deserve the death penalty,” she said to much applause. “If you intentionally abuse a child and that child dies, regardless of that child’s age, you should never get out of prison. “
The governor lauded advancements in public education in New Mexico after what she called bold reform and said funding cuts should not affect the classroom. Her budget proposal would dip into public school districts’ reserves and teachers’ take-home pay. She also suggested denying or revoking driver’s licenses to teens who regularly ditch school.
“I don’t know how they think they are serving the public by keeping this stuff under wraps.”
Thomas Clay, Kentucky lawyer
Louisville, KY – Grabbing the teenage girl from behind, Kevin Watson, a security monitor for Jefferson County Public Schools, slammed her head to the table, opening a gash that splashed blood on the girl’s clothes, the table and the floor, according to accounts of witnesses at Breckinridge Metropolitan High School.
As he forced the girl’s head back to the table, Watson was overheard taunting her.
Yet, despite a state Child Protective Services investigation that substantiated the incident as child abuse, Watson has a clean record with the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, whose social workers issue findings in cases of alleged child abuse or neglect.
Using a secret process that not even victims may know about, Watson, exercising his right to a confidential appeal, was able to overturn the cabinet’s child abuse finding against him. That kept his name from being added to an official list — also confidential — known as the state Child Abuse and Neglect Registry that can restrict adults from some occupations or activities, such as child care, working or volunteering with youths or serving as foster parents.
And data obtained from the cabinet by the CJ show Watson’s case is not unique.
Of the hundreds of people who file such appeals each year, more than half are successful in overturning adverse findings through the same cabinet whose workers substantiated the abuse or neglect, according to the records. Appeals between 2012 and 2015 ranged from several hundred to nearly 1,000 a year, with anywhere from 56 percent to 66 percent being reversed or otherwise changed in favor of the person filing the appeal.
Because all proceedings are shielded by secrecy under Kentucky’s strict confidentiality laws regarding child abuse and neglect, it can’t be determined how the cabinet makes such decisions or who the cabinet notifies when someone appeals a case, including the alleged victims. Watson, who still works at Breckinridge, did not respond to requests for comment.
JCPS officials say they can find no record they were ever notified of Watson’s appeal or offered a chance to submit the school system’s investigation, which also substantiated witness accounts. Amari Walker, the injured student, never knew of the appeal or got a chance to participate, said her lawyer, Thomas Clay.
On July 6, 2016, the cabinet issued a single-page order with no explanation, reversing the abuse finding against Watson, according to records from his JCPS personnel file.
The cabinet rejected the Courier-Journal’s request for further records of Watson’s appeal, saying confidentiality laws protect its records of such proceedings.
Steve Davis, chief of staff at the cabinet, said the cabinet by federal law is required to offer people a chance to appeal findings of child abuse or neglect and state law requires that the records be kept confidential.
And while the law requires the cabinet to notify parties of an appeal, that generally applies to the person filing the appeal and the cabinet officials defending the findings, he said. Davis said he knows of no requirement in the law that victims or others with an interest in the case be notified.
Julie Locke, a Louisville mother, was shocked to discover that her ex-husband successfully overturned a substantiation of child abuse or neglect related to their two daughters. The substantiation stemmed from a 2014 finding by the cabinet that he had put the girls at risk during an incident in which he accosted Locke in front of them at a birthday party, grabbing, threatening and cursing her, according to a domestic violence petition.
“I never knew he filed an appeal,” Locke said. “I never knew they were even entertaining an appeal. For me not to have been notified is bizarre.”
Locke said that based on the cabinet’s reversal of its finding, a judge — over her objections — granted her ex-husband additional visits with their daughters.
Clay, who also represents Locke, said he thinks it’s time for such secrecy to end, that the state needs to revamp the laws and regulations that govern such proceedings.
“I don’t get it,” Clay said. “They’re concealing information about the very people they are trying to protect. I don’t know how they think they are serving the public by keeping this stuff under wraps.”
Walker, now 19, recently filed a lawsuit against JCPS and Watson. She said she still is in disbelief over the incident that left her with blood pouring down her face and required stitches.
“It was crazy,” said Walker, who now attends Doss High. “It happened so fast.”
Davis said he can’t comment on individual cases because of the confidentiality provisions of the law.
In Kentucky, when someone appeals a substantiation of abuse or neglect, the case is assigned to a cabinet lawyer who serves as a hearing officer and typically holds a hearing, takes testimony and makes a written recommendation to the cabinet secretary on whether to uphold or reverse the finding. The secretary makes the final call.
Davis said the cabinet relies on the judgment of the hearing officers and that cabinet officials don’t like to “tinker” with a case because people filing appeals are entitled to an impartial hearing.
“We expect them to issue sound decisions,” he said.
Some cases are settled through agreement of the parties or dismissed for various reasons without a hearing, according to the cabinet.
Dr. Melissa Currie, a pediatric forensic expert at the University of Louisville who occasionally is called as a witness at such hearings, said they tend to be informal, with participants seated around a table and the hearing officer in charge. She said she doesn’t know how the state reaches a decision.
“I don’t know how the system works,” she said. “There doesn’t seem to be any transparency.”
Currie said she has testified at hearings that involved what seemed to be obvious child abuse or neglect, only to find out later that the substantiation was overturned.
“There are cases that seem very clear-cut and they are overturned and we don’t know why,” Currie said.
Often, a lawyer represents the person filing the appeal. Currie said she’s heard lawyers make arguments that don’t address whether abuse or neglect actually occurred but rather, appear to seek sympathy for the client.
” ‘This is going to ruin this guy’s life, he won’t be employed,’ ” Currie recalled one lawyer arguing. “Of course, that should have no bearing whatsoever.”
State law says that the hearing officer should allow only “the evidence on the record” and exclude anything that is irrelevant or immaterial.
Acena Beck, a lawyer with the Children’s Law Center in Covington, said she had represented people at such hearings when she worked as a legal aid lawyer in Northern Kentucky. Generally, the hearings are held in the county of the person filing the appeal, she said, and how they are run depends on who’s in charge.
“It can vary greatly depending on which hearing officer you get,” Beck said. “There’s no consistency.”
Currie said she worries about the effect on social workers tasked with investigating difficult, complicated cases and reaching conclusions, only to have them overturned by the same cabinet that employs them.
“When a finding gets reversed, it undermines the investigation,” Currie said. “It’s demoralizing. They do all this work, they try to protect the kids.”
Locke said she’s still trying to find out how her ex-husband was able to reverse a finding against him.
His lawyer, Elizabeth Pepa, declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of the process.
“My client respectfully wishes for it to remain that way,” she said.
Locke provided the CJ with a copy of the Nov. 19, 2014, letter from the cabinet substantiating abuse or neglect, along with the 2014 domestic violence order she obtained against her ex-husband.
Locke said she was astonished when his lawyer in mid-2015 announced the finding had been reversed following an appeal she knew nothing about.
“How does anyone get a fair hearing if both sides are not represented?” Locke asked.
Even more disturbing to Locke is the lack of any records of the appeal or an official explanation.
As a parent, Locke is entitled to confidential records involving her children of any hearing but when she and her lawyer asked for them, they found there were none. A cabinet lawyer told her the case “was settled outside a hearing,” she said.
When they asked for records of the settlement, they received nothing, Locke said.
Seeking an explanation, Locke and Clay, her lawyer, said they met in December with cabinet officials who said they would look into it.
They are still waiting for an explanation, Locke and Clay said.
Some argue that at a minimum, the state’s confidential registry of people who have substantiated findings of abuse or neglect against them should be open to the public.
Among those arguing that case is state Rep. Dennis Keene, who is sponsoring a bill this year on behalf of a constituent whose infant daughter was injured by a babysitter in 2014.
Keene, a Democrat from Campbell County, said his House Bill 47 would require the cabinet to publish the registry on its website.
“It should be more transparent and accessible to the public,” Keene said.
Jennifer Diaz, the Northern Kentucky mother pushing for the law, said the babysitter was convicted of injuring her daughter and another child she cared for and sentenced to three months in jail.
Diaz said her daughter, now 2, recovered from the injuries that included bruises and head trauma. But Diaz said she believes there should be a way for parents seeking child care to check out individual sitters or other adults around their children.
“It’s very important to us to get this passed,” she said. “I want that registry to be accessible to the public so that everyone can see it.”
Watchdog Group: Tennessee Child Abuse Laws And Judge’s Orders Are Being Ignored
Tennessee’s law that requires suspected child abuse to be reported to authorities is too often being ignored, according to a child abuse watchdog group.
In its latest report, the Second Look Commission, which closely examines severe abuse cases, asks officials to be more vigilant this year in holding adults accountable. Failure to report abuse concerns can be charged as a criminal misdemeanor.
The commission is also worried that suspected abusers are getting too much access to children who have been placed into protective custody.
The group found that one child was killed by someone who was under a judge’s order to stay away and have no contact. (The report did not provide further specifics.)
The broader concern is a practice known as a “family placement.” That’s when an endangered child is temporarily moved into a relative’s home, an arrangement when a no-contact order might be ignored.
“It’s ongoing,” said commission Director Craig Hargrow. “Since our inception, we’ve noticed that.”
The commission suggests that judges should more clearly inform caretakers of their duties, even if they’re family members. And the members of the commission are checking on whether no-contact orders can be loaded into a state database so that police can easily check on violators.
Fatality Data Reported
Since 2013, the Second Look Commission has found that 16 Tennessee children have died even after state Child Protective Services had confirmed that there was prior abuse.
That statistic had not been tracked by officials prior to a Tennessean investigation and a shakeup at the Department of Children’s Services.
The agency has also firmed up its method of counting instances of children who are severely abused more than once. In fiscal year 2015, the state had 643 such cases, of which the majority involved repeat sexual abuse or exposure to drug use.
Grieving Grandfather seeks Trump’s ear on
ROCHESTER, NY – John Geer is a desperate man.
Reeling from grief after his 3-year-old granddaughter Brook Stagles died last month from injuries sustained in a beating that allegedly came at the hands of her father’s girlfriend, Geer has found his mission: raising awareness of child abuse and the pressures faced by the often undermanned, overburdened agencies responsible for protecting the most vulnerable.
And he’s trying to get the attention of a significantly higher power: President-elect Donald J. Trump.
To that end, Geer, a 46-year-old small business owner from Irondequoit, has sunk nearly $100,000 into buying billboards around the country that will deliver his message, “Don’t let children die from child abuse … like Brook Stagles.” The billboards have already gone live in Chicago, Cleveland and Allentown, Pa. More are coming Monday, in cities that include Philadelphia; Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville, Fla.; and Myrtle Beach, S.C. Another will be erected that day in Henrietta.
He’s also purchased the domain name trumpforchildren.com and set that up with a website that details his efforts.
“I want the system fixed,” said Geer. “And I have to make something happen. This needs to be in the national spotlight, that’s why I want Trump to look at it. This is nationwide and we need real reform.”
In the days since Brook died, Geer — whose daughter Ashley is Brook’s mother — has busied himself reading news stories online about children who have died as a result of neglect or abuse. He’s found it overwhelming.
“There are so many cases, so many of these scenarios and it’s happening everywhere,” he said. “It’s mind-blowing and I was so blind to all of this before.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent data, state and local child protective services across the country received an estimated 3.4 million referrals of children being abused or neglected in 2012. Of those, an estimated 686,000 children were victims of maltreatment, and 18% of those were victims of physical abuse. The agency estimates roughly 1,640 children in the United States died from maltreatment that same year.
Brook’s father, Michael Stagles, and his girlfriend Erica Bell face criminal charges in connection with the girl’s death. Bell has been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, while Stagles has been charged with criminally negligent homicide. Trials for both have been scheduled to begin May 15.
Prosecutors have not given specifics about Brook’s death, but Michael Stagles is accused of failing to get medical help for his injured daughter; while Bell is accused of acting with “depraved indifference to human life” and engaging in “conduct which created a grave risk of serious injury or death to Brook Stagles, a person less than 11 years old, and caused her death.” The conduct is alleged to have occurred between Nov. 9 and Nov. 12.
Brook died Nov. 14 after being hospitalized the night of Nov. 13. Her death was ruled a homicide four days later.
Geer said Brook’s injuries were so severe that family members were asked at the hospital if the girl had been in a car accident, and Assistant District Attorney Sara Van Strydonck has said Brook was “bruised from head to toe.”
Geer said his granddaughter died of sepsis caused by a ruptured intestine.
Turning to Trump
He said he and other family members contacted Monroe County’s Child Protective Services in September to report that they believed Brook was being abused. Geer’s daughter Ashley and Michael Stagles had ended their long relationship earlier in the summer, but continued to amicably share custody. It was after Stagles began dating Bell in late August or early September that family started to notice unexplained bruises and marks on the girl, Geer said.
He said the response from CPS was inadequate and too slow to save his granddaughter.
In a written statement, Department of Human Services Commissioner Corinda Crossdale has said, “As a community, our hearts are heavy at the loss of any child. Unfortunately, the Department of Human Services cannot discuss any case under investigation.”
A staunch Trump supporter, Geer is hopeful the president-elect will hear of his campaign.
“The whole family is big on helping kids,” he said, noting the Eric Trump Foundation and its work raising money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. With Eric Trump deciding earlier this month to stop directly soliciting contributions for the charity, due to the possibility that donors could try to use him for access to his father, Geer said child abuse prevention and child protective services reform could become a new banner for the Trump family to carry.
In addition to the billboards, Geer is looking at buying advertising on the sides of buses that would run near Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C. He also has $150,000 he says he’s willing to provide the president-elect to be used for any purpose if Trump would just give him 10 minutes of time on the phone.
“This is what I need to do, I need to get this to Trump,” said Geer. “Once I know he knows what’s happening, I’m going to have a million pounds lifted off of my shoulders.”