Brutality shocks even veteran investigators in child abuse cases

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 16, 2011

By Shavonne Potts
SALISBURY — Lt. Brian Stallings remembers the day a woman claimed her infant’s fractured upper arm resulted from falling out of a crib. But medical workers told officers the type of injury suffered by the child wouldn’t have been caused by a fall.
The infant had a spiral fracture, caused by someone twisting the arm with so much force the bone snapped.
On any given day, emergency rooms across the country see children whose breaks and bruises are not the result of accidents or clumsiness, but harm inflicted by a caregiver. And that harm, regardless of intent, is considered abuse.
Every 10 seconds a report of child abuse is made, according to Child File, a database of the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.
And it’s not just physical abuse. A situation where the child is left in circumstances in which abuse is likely to occur is also an element of abuse, the law says.
A month ago, authorities arrested a Rowan County couple who investigators say allowed their four children to live in filthy conditions, with little education or medical attention.
David and Angela Lore, who own Pet Place in Salisbury, each face multiple child abuse charges. The children, who range in age from 7 to 16, have been removed from the home by the Rowan County Department of Social Services.
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, during which communities nationwide promote the awareness and prevention of child abuse and neglect.
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One of the worst child abuse cases Stallings recalled during a recent interview involved DeMallon Krider, an 18-month-old who died in 1997 at the hands of his mother, Tamanchies Krider, officials said.
Stallings became a child abuse investigator shortly after Tamanchies Krider was accused of throwing her son in a bedroom. The child’s head hit the railing of a bed, and he died a short time later.
The baby had previous injuries, including bite marks, on his body. Tamanchies Krider is serving a life sentence for the murder of her son.
The Krider case was one of a series of child deaths in 1997 that led to statewide legislative changes and changed the protocol by which investigations are conducted.
Even when children survive, though, the brutality of abuse can be shocking.
Stallings recalled a case in which a child was partially submerged in a pot of boiling water. The baby had severe lower-body burns.
He also remembered a mother who burned her child’s upper leg and genitals with a hot curling iron because the child would not stop crying.
Some abuse cases that remain ingrained in Stallings’ memory are too graphic to recount. Investigating those cases can be mentally and emotionally overwhelming, Stallings said.
“You remember the kids you couldn’t help,” he said.
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The crimes those investigators see day after day weigh heavily on them. It’s hard to “unwind” after seeing children who suffer at the hands of an abuser.
Stallings said investigating child abuse takes someone who can be objective and compassionate at the same time. He praised Social Services workers and child abuse investigators who “genuinely care” about what they do every day.
Detective Russell DeSantis, who has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years, investigates child abuse cases with the Salisbury Police Department.
The hardest cases, he said, involve young children and those that involve sex offenses.
“They can’t defend themselves,” he said. “They can’t fight for themselves.
When abuse is suspected, DeSantis and a case worker from the Rowan County Department of Social Services conduct an initial interview with the child to discuss the allegations.
It can be difficult, because the child is already unlikely to trust adults, he said.
In a recent investigation, DeSantis spent nearly half such an interview getting a child to open up and trust him. The child did not look at him for much of the encounter.
“It’s harder to gain their trust,” he said. But when they do trust, children “are very truthful.”
DeSantis said working with Social Services is essential, because investigators can “play off each other’s strengths.”
He said being a father makes him a better investigator of crimes against children. And being an investigator makes him appreciate his life.
“I guess I draw strength from the good my job does for the community, my co-workers, but most of all my family (wife and children) and my belief in God,” he said.
“Sometimes you hug your kids a little longer,” DeSantis said.
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The worst kind of case is when the abuser is a parent, DeSantis said.
Children, he said, “should be able to look at their parent for safety, not harm.”
Sometimes, an investigator brings an end to the cycle of abuse. In one case, DeSantis discovered a history of abuse that spanned generations.
Even when the abuse has ended, its effects have “a lasting impact” on a child, Stallings said.
He still receives phone calls from child abuse victims who are now adults. They call to say they are OK, but he knows “it’s still on their minds.”
The other side of helping a child is when they don’t understand, and all they see is the officer who ripped their family apart.
“It’s something that turns their lives upside down. They have to go to court. It can be embarrassing. There’s all these emotions,” Stallings said.
An abuser can be anyone — a mother, father, a grandmother, grandfather, a babysitter.
There is no profile of a child abuser, Stallings said.
“But family members can be the ones to cause the worst crimes. It’s an issue of trust,” DeSantis said.
“Abuse is more apt to happen within a family,” Stallings said.
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An abuser isn’t someone who one day got angry and spanked their child a little too hard.
Substance abuse and anger issues are things that can increase the likelihood of abuse, but there is an underlying issue present, Stallings said.
“Those are excuses. There’s something there. It was always there,” DeSantis said.
Abuse doesn’t necessarily mean the abuser, particularly in the case of sexual abuse, is trying to fulfill a sexual impulse.
“All abuse is about power, control — having the control over somebody is the main driving factor,” Stallings said. And, he said, once a sex offender, always a sex offender.
Physical abuse, is slightly different, DeSantis said. In his opinion, the abuser can learn to redirect anger and others improve through counseling, but the tendency to re-abuse is always there.
The investigators say they believe actual instances of abuse, like rapes, are severely underreported.
DeSantis said things are changing. This generation is more likely to report abuse because of education and an openness to talk about it.
Legally any person or institution who has cause to suspect a child has been abused or neglected is obligated to report that to Social Services.
“People should be aware of what’s going on around them. The smallest thing a child might say may indicate possible abuse,” DeSantis said.
Contact reporter Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253.