Maybe a child reminds a parent of something bad: a rape, or a former partner.
Or maybe a child has special needs, frustrating a parent who doesn’t know how to meet them.
It could be the child is just the most defiant in the family.
There are many possible reasons a parent might target just one child for abuse, and the situation is not that uncommon, experts say.
Investigators don’t know why it happened in Kansas City last week when an anonymous call led police and caseworkers to a 10-year-old girl, malnourished and locked in a closet with her own waste. Her mother, Jacole Prince, was out with her two younger children, who appeared healthy and clean.
But experts weren’t shocked.
“It’s not atypical,” said Debra Wolfe, the executive director of the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice Research at the University of Pennsylvania.
In abusive households it is not unusual for one child to be singled out as a “problem child,” said Lois Rice, executive director of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Johnson and Wyandotte Counties.
Rice, who could not speak to the Kansas City case specifically, has heard about several examples of targeted abuse in her work at CASA, which provides volunteer support for abused and neglected children throughout the court process.
“One child may just be more difficult to manage,” Rice said. “Many have physical or medical needs that cause the parent to be frustrated and they lose their ability to properly control their own behavior.”
A number of things can trigger these reactions, such as misbehavior or resistance to potty training, Wolfe said.
Last week, Prince’s daughter told police she was beaten and placed in the closet because she “messes herself,” according to court documents. Such behavior could cause an abusive parent to lash out, Wolfe said.
In other cases, Wolfe said, the child represents something negative to the parent, causing the parent to relive a trauma, such as the parent’s own abuse.
But what is the difference between a parent who gets frustrated with the trials of parenting and a parent who becomes abusive, particularly toward certain children?
“Rational people expect rational answers for irrational behavior,” Wolfe said. “Usually it’s a series or number of different issues that can cause this.”
Sometimes, there is no logical explanation for why they are targeted. A child makes a parent feel trauma, inadequacy or rage. They have the wrong father, or the wrong attitude. They are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“If a child is viewed as different, it may cause a negative reaction that would increase the likelihood of them being scapegoated in a family,” Wolfe said.
• • •
Looking back, Nathan Ross thinks his likeness to his mother probably saved him.
Ross grew up in the Northeast area with the name Ronald Bass, one of Mary Bass’ five kids. He and his sister, Catina, shared the same father and were black, like his mother. His younger half-brothers, Larry, Gary and Jerry, were triplets and half-white. He doesn’t remember either father ever really being in the picture.
In the beginning, he said, all five children were abused equally. Mary Bass beat and starved her children. He remembers searching trash cans with his siblings for food. They were required to be beaten as a “payment” for eating or watching TV.
Ross, his sister and Jerry developed similar survival instincts, he said. They’d rather starve than be beaten; they learned to lay low. Larry and Gary would risk a beating to steal food. Soon, Mary Bass directed most of her abuse to them.
In October 1999, Mary Bass filled a bathtub with scalding water and held Larry and Gary’s legs under. They died of infection a week later at age 8, and the case captured national attention.
Bass was convicted and sentenced to eight life terms in the deaths. Ross thinks that it was easier for his mother to disconnect from the triplets, particularly the defiant Larry and Gary, because they looked the least like her. He thinks she was ashamed of having half-white children in a black culture.
“I think she saw them as different,” Ross said. “I think they brought up things in her life that she wasn’t proud of.”
• • •
The victims aren’t the only ones who suffer, Ross and others say.
Wolfe can’t stop thinking about the younger Prince siblings.
“For them to be witnessing this and feel powerless to protect their sibling is really daunting,” Wolfe said.
Family court officials in Jackson and Johnson counties said the victim’s sisters might appear to be well-cared for, but the abuse can go beyond physical scars. The court typically offers support for children based on the emotional abuse endured in such cases.
“It’s not physical abuse but it’s an emotional abuse cycle,” Rice said.
When children are removed from a home, they often go to foster care together. Case workers and CASA volunteers are trained to closely watch to see how siblings are interacting later and if they are suffering from guilt, Rice said.
In the most severe abuse cases, siblings are sometimes forced to participate. Siblings might be told by their parents to withhold food from a targeted child. Even being asked to isolate the targeted child from family activities can cause profound guilt later for the other siblings.
Ross knows the guilt firsthand. He said it wasn’t until he started living with a foster family, when he was allowed to eat when he wanted to and received time out, not beatings, that he even realized that his mother’s behavior was abnormal and wrong.
“Seeing how a family is supposed to function allowed me to be able see that what she did was wrong,” he said.
Ross, who is now the director of youth programs at the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association, remembers what a long road recovery was — learning to forgive his mother, living with the guilt of surviving.
“Even though we were abused too, the fact that they were killed and I wasn’t took a toll on me,” Ross said.
He says he feels for all of Prince’s children, particularly the younger siblings. He knows there will be a day when they struggle to understand why they were not abused like their sister.
The Star’s Dawn Bormann contributed to this report.