Sunday, January 29, 2012

Article: Kentucky releases records in five child death cases

FRANKFORT, KY. — FRANKFORT, Ky. On the night he killed his two-year-old son before turning the gun on himself, Ralph Michael Utley first violently attacked the boy's mother, punching her, kicking her and tearing out a handful of hair.

The child, Owen Utley, pleaded for him to stop, prompting his father to reply that he was not going to stop "until I kill her."

When the mother escaped the Gallatin County home to call police, Ralph Utley fatally shot Owen, then himself.

Owen's is one of five violent child deaths in 2009 detailed in records released Friday by the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services — the first of about 180 cases involving child abuse deaths or serious injuries that the cabinet has agreed to release in coming weeks to satisfy records requests by The Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader.

While a legal dispute continues over what information the cabinet may redact, or withhold, officials have agreed to release files as they review and copy them.

The Courier-Journal and Herald-Leader waged a lengthy legal battle to get the documents under the state open records law. Previously, the cabinet had released only one batch of records, about 90 internal review of child abuse deaths and serious injuries.

The files released Friday — while not heavily redacted — do omit information beyond what Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd said was permissible in ordering them to be made public.

He directed the cabinet to limit redactions to names of children seriously injured by abuse, private citizens who report suspected abuse, siblings mentioned only because of their relationship to a victim and minors who perpetrate abuse.

For example, files released Friday omit the name of the 17-year-old mother of one child victim because she was a minor. The records also omit other names, including adult relatives of victims, a babysitter of one victim and a mother's boyfriend who was not involved in the abuse.

Cabinet officials, arguing they should be able to redact far more information, on Thursday took the legal dispute to the state Court of Appeals. The Appeals Court has assigned the matter to a three judge panel, which will hear the matter Feb. 7.

Domestic violence was a factor in four of the five cases released Friday and continues to be a danger sign for troubled families, said Sherry Currens, executive director of the Kentucky Domestic Violence Association.

But it's not the only factor, she said.

"Yes, there's domestic violence," Currens said. "There's also substance abuse, unemployment, mental health issues — there may be all kinds of issues in a family."

She said the state has too few resources to help women escape violence and find a safe place for themselves and their children.

"All the shelters are full," she said of the state's 15 regional centers. "We do the best we can, but it's hard, especially in this economy."

Teresa James, Kentucky's acting commissioner of social services, recently made an impassioned plea at a Kentucky Press Association meeting for people to be more aware of domestic violence and its destructive effect on families.

While the files released Friday represent just a few of the cases the cabinet investigates involving child deaths and serious injuries, James said domestic violence is a growing problem for families involved in the state social service system.

Other cases released Friday that involved domestic violence include:

Cole Frazier of Nelson County, 21 months, who was fatally shot by his father, Timothy Frazier, 28, who then killed himself. Cole's mother, who had moved out of the home and was seeking custody, said Timothy Frazier had threatened her — causing her to take out a protective order — and talked about killing himself.

Kiara Smith, age 1, fatally beaten by her 17-year-old mother's boyfriend, Brandon Barnhill, 24, who was convicted of murder. The teenage mother, who was staying at the boyfriend's apartment in Grant County, said he had pushed and grabbed and yelled at her, once tried to kick the baby's crib to pieces and dumped the baby's formula down the toilet.

Kayden Stewart, age 1, fatally beaten by his stepfather, Allan Rolley of Muhlenberg County. Kayden's mother reported that four months before the child's death, Rolley had pushed her down, choked her and threatened to kill her while she was holding another child. Rolley is serving a 10-year prison sentence for manslaughter.

The fifth case involved the beating death of Chloe Senseman, a two-month-old Boone County infant, whose father, Benjamin Senseman, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Kenton Commonwealth's attorney Rob Sanders, whose office prosecuted the case, said the family had no previous reports of violence or suspected child abuse. But he said the investigation showed the infant had suffered previous injuries, including a healing arm fracture and rib fractures as well as the head injury that caused her death.

And that should be a warning sign to friends, relatives or others who notice frequent or unusual injuries to a child, he said.

"Rarely does child abuse go from zero to death," said Sanders, whose office had prosecuted a number of adults for killing or seriously injuring kids. "There are almost always healing wounds."

Sometimes professionals may miss warning signs.

In the case of Kiara Smith — the Grant County toddler beaten by her mother's boyfriend — the cause of death was severe blunt force injuries to the head. An abrasion to the child's scalp matched a ring that her abuser was wearing while he was babysitting, the cabinet records said.

Barnhill was sentenced to life in prison for Kiara's Jan. 4, 2009, death.

But the autopsy revealed evidence of previous head injuries, and the child's medical records showed she had been taken twice to a local emergency room for head injuries in the three months before her death.

On the first occasion, she was treated for bruises to both sides of her head — injuries the girl's mother and Barnhill said came from a fall. She was treated just six days later at the same emergency room for a head laceration that required stitches, also reported as being caused by a fall.

In both cases, the medical records cited "no concerns of abuse or neglect," and no report was made to state social services officials, the cabinet records said.

Speaking at a recent child abuse death conference in Louisville, Dr. Melissa Currie, a forensic specialist with the University of Louisville pediatrics department, said medical professionals sometimes miss obvious signs of abuse. Currie said better training is needed for physicians who encounter children in such situations, including emergency rooms, urgent care centers and primary care clinics.

Sanders, the prosecutor, said he's surprised at what appears to be a lack of awareness — or outright denial — in some cases of child abuse.

Two-month-old Chloe Senseman suffered horrific injuries while her father was watching her, Sanders said. A state medical examiner said the infant's injuries were consistent with being "thrown out a window," the cabinet files said.

But Benjamin Senseman's supporters — including his wife, Laura Senseman, who was acquitted of charges in Chloe's death — wrote letters asking the judge for leniency. They are included in records the cabinet released.

"Ben has been the kindest, most loving and caring person that I have ever known," said Laura Senseman's letter.

"I have great difficulty believing that this kind and gentle man acted in any intentional way to harm his daughter," said a letter from a family pastor, Dana Bruce Stout, with First Presbyterian Church in Aurora, Ind.

Sanders said he found such letters perplexing.

"Dealing with these cases is just baffling sometimes," he said.

The cabinet is scheduled to continue releasing records of its cases involving child abuse deaths and serious injuries, acting under Shepherd's order.

No comments: