Sunday, December 21, 2008

If you're going to bail out the banks and automakers, you should bail out the children

Expert calls Tracy torture case a "social services plane wreck"
Benca, Jeanine. San Jose Mercury News, Dec. 7, 2008.

Studies show as many as 15 percent of children in wealthy nations are physically abused by guardians each year, but the alleged torture of a boy who stumbled into a Tracy fitness club battered, half-starved and in chains last week stands out for its cruelty, a leading child abuse expert says.

Cases that severe are "not a very common thing." But they continuously pop up, said Carole Jenny, a pediatrics professor at Brown University's medical school.

Underfunding and a lack of resources for child protective services is a huge problem, said Jenny, who called what authorities say happened to the boy known as "Kyle R." a "social services plane wreck."

It is to everyone's benefit to look after abused children, since a high percentage end up in prisons and mental health facilities, she said.

She recalled treating a boy who had been locked in a box for several years. Of the 1,500 or so abuse cases she sees annually, Jenny estimates two or three include "extreme torture and deprivation."

The circumstances of intense abuse vary and cannot be boiled down to a single cause, she said, though researchers say there are common risk factors among abusers. They include mental illness, a history of abuse and dysfunction in their own childhood, stress, lack of education, substance abuse, poverty and an absence of social support.

Child abuse rates also are tied to economic downturn, as evidenced by increased incidents reported nationwide.

In the case of the boy in a box, "his (guardian) was psychotic and not thinking clearly," Jenny said. "I've seen cases where children have been starved to death, I've seen cases where kids almost died. I saw one case where a 7-year-old girl was kept in a house trailer and the neighbors didn't even know she existed. She was taking care of her disabled mother and her father was also prostituting her."

According to a study published Tuesday in the British medical journal The Lancet, abuse is more common in the United States, Canada and other rich countries than previously thought. But, research shows, as few as one in 10 cases are taken up by child protective agencies.

One reason is a lack of faith in the public welfare system by doctors and others who might suspect abuse but do not report it because they fear foster care would be worse for the child, said Jenny, who wrote a commentary on the study.

"They don't trust social services. And they think they're really going to lose the relationship with the family if they report," she said.

On paper, the story of Tracy's Kyle R. reads like the script for a bad horror movie.

The 16-year-old who appeared seemingly out of nowhere Monday at In-Shape City in Tracy was almost unrecognizable as a teenage boy. Half-naked, shrunken and stunted from starvation to the size of a small child, barely verbal, covered in severe cuts, burns, feces and urine, with a thick chain shackled to his bloody ankle, his appearance was so disturbing that gym workers thought they were targets of a sick prank.

When the reality became clear, some staff members went to another room to weep, out of sight of the boy who crawled into a fetal position under a desk.

The charges leveled against the three adults arrested in connection with the abuse are equally surreal.

Over 18 months, authorities say, Caren Ramirez, Kyle's guardian, and her two housemates, husband and wife Michael Schumacher and Kelly Layne Lau, turned Kyle into a torture object.

In a jailhouse interview last week, Lau said the boy was denied food and kept chained to the coffee table while the family ate dinner and led their daily lives. Authorities say the trio's weapons of choice included belts, knives and an aluminum bat heated in a fireplace, and, they say, Kyle was force-fed pills and alcohol.

When he appeared at In-Shape City, workers say he was covered in soot. A search warrant released Friday said he had been chained to and sleeping in a fireplace.

Authorities say the abuse took place in the presence of Schumacher's and Lau's four young children — one of whom is an aspiring ballerina, according to Lau's MySpace Web site — and within earshot of neighbors who say they attended barbecues at the house.

The case has caused public outrage and raised questions on what causes some to commit atrocities against children. Also baffling is the allegation that Kyle was singled out in a house of five children — police reports indicate Lau and Schumacher's four children, who are in protective custody, appear relatively unharmed — and how the suspected abuse could go unreported for so long.

Empathy — the ability to care about and feel pain for others — is believed to develop in early childhood, but it can be short-circuited by childhood trauma, experts say.

People who were devalued and severely abused are more likely to become abusers as adults, though the presence of at least one positive adult relationship in early childhood has been shown to make a difference in how abuse victims turn out.

Little is known about the backgrounds of the three accused of abusing Kyle, though Lau said during an interview that she was physically abused by her previous husband.

One thing is clear: Kyle's case is not an isolated incident.

The Tracy case bares similarities to a recent East Bay tragedy — that of 15-year-old Jazzmin Davis of Antioch. On Sept. 2, the girl was found dead, her naked, broken body weighing less than 80 pounds, in a bedroom of the home she shared with Shemeeka Davis, her aunt and foster mother.

Davis pleaded not guilty in September to murder in Jazzmin's death and awaits trial for the suspected abuse and torture of the girl and her twin brother. An autopsy found Jazzmin died of starvation compounded by whippings and burns from hot irons.

In both cases, there were serious breakdowns in the government system responsible for protecting children.

In Jazzmin's case, child welfare agents failed to spot signs of abuse during routine visits to her home, while records show Kyle went missing from the system for more than a year.

By age 12, Kyle was living with Ramirez after having been removed from the care of his father, who had abused him, police said. Kyle's mother reportedly gave Ramirez custody before she died.

Kyle and Ramirez's stepson, Austin, were removed from Ramirez's Citrus Heights home and placed in foster care after police were called to the home at least twice, in 2005 and 2006. The second time, it was Ramirez's daughter, 21-year-old Cristina Sanchez, who reported that her mother had beaten Kyle. When police arrived, they found the boy had severe bruises on his buttocks, legs and arms. He said Ramirez beat him with martial-arts sticks, broomsticks and clothes hangers.

In April 2007, Ramirez was charged with four felony counts of child abuse. She plead no contest to one charge, the others were dismissed.

A month later, Kyle went missing from his Sacramento foster home. By July 2007, he was living with Ramirez in Lau's and Schumacher's home, though how he ended up with Ramirez again is unknown. Lau has said in interviews that her family knew Ramirez through "a friend of a friend."

Any abuse he suffered in the past 18 months might have been prevented if authorities had tracked him down after he ran away. But Luis Villa, a division manager for Sacramento County Child Protective Services, said the volume of cases and lack of resources make it difficult for CPS workers to search for runaway foster children.

"There is very little effort put into it because there is very little information out there," said Bob Wilson, executive director of Sacramento Child Advocate Inc. The nonprofit group advocates for abused and neglected foster children.

"Usually, social workers make their best effort but become overwhelmed with what they have to deal with in regard to other cases. And law enforcement doesn't actively pursue them unless they get a hit on a traffic stop or arrest," he said.

Wilson said that when a foster child disappears, he or she typically doesn't have loved ones posting signs, alerting the media or organizing searches like the families of other children would.

"They don't have a voice or safety net out there for them," Wilson said. "Many end up on streets in child prostitution and exploited in other fashions."

"At the same time the need (for social services) is increasing, the resources are decreasing," Jenny said of the current economic climate. "If you're going to bail out the banks and automakers, you should bail out the children."

Sacramento Child Advocates has set up a bank account for Kyle R. The group accepts only cash donations to be used for his care. Sacramento Child Advocates Inc. is the advocate and voice for abused children in the foster care system.

To donate by e-mail, visit, click on the Tracy Youth fund on the left side of the page. Checks may be sent to SCA FBO Tracy Youth Fund, 8745 Folsom Blvd. Suite 150, Sacramento, CA 95826.

Donations are also being accepted at the In-Shape City Sports Club, where the boy first went for help. The club is at 101 S. Tracy Blvd., Tracy, CA 95376.



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