The horrific stories have come one after another like hammer blows.
A near-starved boy with Down syndrome found in a De Soto attic in August 2010. A girl locked away in a Kansas City closet two years later. A teenage boy chained to a pole in his family’s basement in the Northland.
And just days ago, authorities in Independence picked up a malnourished 10-year-old boy after he ran away from home. Authorities said the boy had been forced to stay in the basement, where he slept on a bed soiled with feces and where bottles of urine littered the floor. A younger sibling told police the boy was often beaten for “stealing” food.
His age surprised a neighbor.
“I would have guessed him to be 6 or 7,” the woman said. “He was a little thing.
“Somebody said they heard screams over there. I didn’t. But I know now it was terrible what went on over there, right next door to me.”
Just like other severely abused and neglected children in the Kansas City area who were rescued before him, this boy — known as D.E. in court records — has a long road to recovery. Therapy will be only one part of a complicated journey to becoming whole.
And as he travels that road, a community of child advocates, therapists and physicians who have become all too familiar with the struggles he faces will be there to counsel and guide him. They will help him learn to trust again, to form relationships and catch up academically, and they will show him that despite what he suffered inside his family’s home, his needs matter.
“It takes a team of folks,” said Sonya Richardson-Thomas, a therapist in Liberty who has worked with many abused and neglected children, including the little boy found in the attic nearly five years ago. “We’ve failed these children as a community to begin with, so we should take them on.
“It takes a lot of people to make that child realize the exception is what (they) were living. All of the rest of us are the rule.”
Recovery never comes quickly, experts say, because the frail bodies and physical scars are just a fraction of the damage that’s been done.
“When exposed to this level of abuse and neglect, the long-term impact, it’s physical, psychological, social. It’s neurological,” said James Roberson, director of programs and training initiatives for KVC Hospitals.
The children are broken, from the inside out.
Roberson points to the challenges facing the boy rescued last week. He must feel safe once he’s in his new environment. He must have that sense of security before he can begin to learn coping skills and work through what he has experienced.
“The person he loved and (who) should have been caring for him was not providing that care,” Roberson said. “At some point in the future, he’s going to have to make sense of that.
“I think it will be important as a community that we find a way to wrap this child up.”
‘Fell into a great system’
That’s what the community has done in other high-profile cases, like that of the boy with Down syndrome.
Johnson County deputies found him in an attic in a rented duplex in De Soto. He was living amid exposed nails and insulation, and he was covered in feces and urine. The attic, stifling hot in the middle of August 2010, could only be entered through a small cutout in the ceiling of the duplex that was accessible only by a ladder.
The boy’s ribs showed through his skin. At age 6, he weighed just 16 pounds.
When Richardson-Thomas saw a news clip of what the boy looked like then, before he was helped by a system of experts, “I burst into tears,” she said.
Those who have worked closely with the case say that if his grandmother hadn’t insisted he was somewhere in the home, and if the search hadn’t occurred when it did, the boy would have died in the attic.
“I don’t know how you survive at 16 pounds,” she said. “But that boy did.
“He fell into a great system. People followed along and championed him and he had all kinds of pro-growth things that happened for him.”
A loving adoptive family and the community — doctors and counselors, teachers and organizers of sports programs — rallied around the boy.
As did agencies after the rescue of the 10-year-old girl found in a closet in June 2012. The girl, known only as LP, weighed 32 pounds and hadn’t been to school in five years. She wasn’t allowed to play outside or have birthday parties like her two younger sisters. The community, and people outside Kansas City, donated money and gifts to show the girl she was loved.
Once kids are rescued, the key is for professionals to begin working with them right away, experts say, because the process has multiple steps.
It starts with making sure the child understands that he or she is no longer in danger.
“There’s no immediate therapeutic fix,” Roberson said. “The first phase is ‘How do we protect this child?’ We often overlook the importance of helping a child every hour of every day feel safe and feel comfortable. You have to monitor moment by moment, ‘Does this child feel safe in his environment?’”
In many of these cases, children have been deprived of food, sometimes as a punishment.
“When that happens, it’s kind of the most ultimate betrayal,” said Dennis Meier, associate executive director of Synergy Services, which treats children who have been abused and neglected. “It’s hard to feel safe. And if you can’t feel safe around something as basic as food, you have a long way to go.”
After ensuring safety, counselors can teach new coping strategies, and children can learn to build relationships.
When those steps have been taken, therapists can begin to work through the issues stemming from the child’s trauma.
And with every child, therapy should be tailored.
Some parents may tell children they aren’t being fed because “you are a horrible kid, you can’t be trusted,” Meier said. As children start to heal, if they are corrected for something they did wrong, they may feel like they’re again being told they’re horrible.
“You have to learn to trust that someone now is saying, ‘Your behavior isn’t good, but you’re OK,’” Meier said. “For kids who have been beaten for the simplest thing or punished with lack of food, it can take a long time to overcome those internalized messages.”
Five years ago, a group of child advocates, counselors and health care agencies in the area began meeting and developing a plan that included how to help children with serious emotional problems.
As the Children’s Enhancement Project continued to meet, members discovered a severe lack of trauma care for children in the area, said Terry Cunningham, coordinator of the project.
Trauma can be caused by many things, including abuse or neglect, experiencing violence either as a victim or witness, or seeing something tragic.
“We realized they have horrendous stories,” Cunningham said. “We knew we had to do better to meet their needs.”
And when experts get to the root of what happened to the child — which trauma-based care does — instead of continually treating the symptoms, real healing can happen.
Roberson sees that at Prairie Ridge Hospital, the KVC hospital in Wyandotte County.
“There are thousands of children in the Kansas City area that are exposed to abuse, neglect and violence, that are receiving appropriate treatment,” he said. “And they are healing every day. I see children walking out of our facility every day smiling, hugging staff.
“It’s absolutely possible for children to heal from trauma. I’ve seen children get beyond things I would say to myself, ‘I don’t know if I could get beyond that.’”
Richardson-Thomas was working at Synergy Services when she started seeing the 6-year-old boy found in an attic. Her colleagues at the center watched his progress, seeing him learn to trust and communicate.
A year into his treatment, she took him around and introduced him. After a while, he developed relationships.
“He would stop in at our office,” Meier said. “Sometimes he walked in and high-fived us.… I can’t tell you the number of times when (he) came here that we would say to ourselves, ‘How does something like this happen?’ and ‘How does someone do this to a child?’
“And at the same time, marvel at his sheer willpower to carry on.”
‘I can do this’
Dave Pelzer says “quiet heroes” saved his life many years ago.
In his best-selling book, “A Child Called ‘It,’” Pelzer tells of his mother starving him and locking him in the basement. She burned him on a gas stove, beat him and made him drink ammonia. When he threw up, she made him eat the vomit off the floor.
Pelzer grew up in northern California. His father’s job as a firefighter kept him away from the house, leaving him and his brothers in the care of his mother, whom he describes in his book as an alcoholic.
He says his mother chose him because of something called “target child selection,” a term commonly used to describe a parent singling out one child for abuse.
“I was isolated,” Pelzer said. “And when you are alone you tend to think a lot. My mantra was: ‘I can do this.’”
In 1992, as his mother lay dying in a hospital bed, he visited her and asked why she’d done what she did. He said she referred to him, the little boy, as “it,” thus the name of his book.
“She made me a nonentity and that helped justify her behavior,” Pelzer said. “She was such a vicious person.”
Pelzer, 54, is a military veteran, author and motivational speaker. The accuracy of his story of abuse has been questioned by some, including members of his own family. One brother, however, wrote a book supporting Pelzer’s claims and says he witnessed abuse.
The family remains estranged.
Pelzer said his abuse lasted from about age 3 to 12, when his school intervened. In the ensuing years, social workers, therapists and foster parents worked to save him, he said in a recent telephone interview. The professionals treated his physical, emotional and psychological injuries.
His foster parents made him finally feel safe and wanted.
“Without them and good counseling, I would probably be dead, a terrorist or in jail,” he said.
Some victims may think abuse is normal, Pelzer said, but many, no matter the age, know that what happened to them was wrong and they didn’t deserve it.
“I knew what was happening to me wasn’t right,” he said. “Most kids know that’s wrong. They know they deserve to be loved.
“And they can absolutely recover to live a good life if they get the help they need.”
Finding normal again
What worries Nathan Ross is the children who don’t get that collaborative care. Who aren’t surrounded by a village of people who provide support and guidance through recovery.
Instead, they end up invisible in the child welfare system, moved in and out of foster homes. They continue to struggle.
“I’m lucky in a sense,” said Ross, a youth advocacy supervisor with the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association in Independence. “I had the community rallying around my family.”
Fifteen years ago, Ross — formerly Ronald Bass — found himself at the point where many abused and neglected children are when they’re rescued.
He was 10 when two of his younger brothers, 8-year-old triplets, died of starvation and infection from burns caused by scalding bath water. The third triplet, Jerry, survived along with Ross and a sister.
The case shook Kansas City. The children’s mother, Mary Bass, eventually was sentenced to eight life terms.
Immediately after the tragedy, Ross, his sister and Jerry were put in a supportive and caring foster home. Professionals from various agencies jumped in to help them.
The foster family adopted Jerry. Ross and his sister, Catina, were adopted by another family who made sure all their needs were met.
“I had great therapists, mentors, tutors, everything,” he said. “I learned to process and deal with trauma and learned how to be a kid. Learning how to be a kid again is really important.”
Identifying what actually happened in his family was key for him.
“You understand it’s not something you did,” Ross said. “You didn’t cause this to happen.”
As he began to heal, he learned that relationships wouldn’t be the same. Neither would the way he processed things in his mind. So much would be different.
“You’re trying to find a way to be normal again,” he said.
As a child advocate, he has recently met others who suffered abuse and neglect as children. But their cases never made the news, never got the high-profile attention.
“I’ve met hundreds of young people who have told similar stories, and their lives didn’t turn out how they hoped,” Ross said. “They weren’t able to go to school, didn’t have a family to support them, a home to go to. They just fell through the cracks. The community didn’t know about them.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of incentive to make sure they were protected.”
He and others at the foster care and adoption agency are working to get the Kansas City area to embrace and help all kids in foster care the way they do with those in high-profile cases.
The community must get better, he said, at identifying kids who are at risk, and at helping their families before abuse makes headlines.
“We have to get to the point where children aren’t found in basements,” Ross said.
Possible signs of child abuse or neglect
▪ Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance.
▪ Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention.
▪ Has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes.
▪ Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen.
▪ Lacks adult supervision.
▪ Is overly compliant, passive or withdrawn.
▪ Comes to school or other activities early, stays late and does not want to go home.
Signs of physical abuse
▪ Unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones or black eyes.
▪ Fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school.
▪ Seems frightened of parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home.
▪ Shrinks at the approach of adults.
▪ Reports injury by a parent or another adult caregiver.
Signs of neglect
▪ Frequently absent from school.
▪ Begs or steals food or money.
▪ Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses.
▪ Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor.
▪ Lacks sufficient clothing for weather conditions.
▪ Abuses alcohol or other drugs.
▪ States that there is no one at home to provide care.
Source: Preventing Child Abuse & Neglect in Kansas City, www.preventchildabusekc.org
Hotlines to report suspected abuse or neglect