The Torture of Children
(Originally published March 2018)
I worked in public child welfare for more than 30 years in two states (Colorado and Washington) without encountering a child death due to prolonged denial of food and water by caregivers. Soon after I left the Children's Administration, on January 13, 2005 Tyler DeLeon, an encopretic 7-year-old foster child, died of dehydration in Deer Park, Washington. Tyler died on his seventh birthday; he weighed 28 lbs. at autopsy. He had been systematically starved and physically abused as well, including having teeth knocked out.
According to a story in the Spokane Spokesman Review, “on that day (his birthday) Tyler scratched his way out of the screen window ...so he could get at snow to drink.” School staff had made several CPS reports regarding suspected child abuse, but according to news stories, DLR-CPS had little or no response to these reports, possibly because the foster mother was also the adoptive parent of several other children and a paralegal who had the support of a local physician regarding her care of Tyler. The foster mother eventually entered into a plea agreement for homicide by abuse and for criminal mistreatment of another child in the home who was also malnourished. She received a 6-year prison sentence. Perhaps it goes without saying that many citizens in the local community were outraged by these events.
A few years later, a 13-year-old Ethiopian youth, Hana Williams, who (along with her 9-year-old brother) had been adopted by a family in Northwest Washington died of hypothermia. She was malnourished after having been denied adequate food on a regular basis; and was locked out of the home, chained in the backyard and forced to sleep in the barn. She was often beaten and scapegoated by the adoptive parents and several other children in the family. The adoptive mother and father eventually received prison sentences of 37 years and 28 years respectively.
This horrendous child death and several others with similar features resulted in a task force on severe abuse of adopted children chaired by Denise Revels Robinson, who was then the head of the Children's Administration. In September 2012, this task force issued it's report following an in-depth review of 15 cases, 11 of which had occurred in 2011. The report was silent regarding the factors that led to a cluster of severe abuse cases in adoptive homes during a 2-3 year period of time, including several child deaths. The report found that most of the cases the task force studied included some common elements present in the death of Hana Williams:
locking children in their room and/or out of the house
disparaging remarks, i.e., emotional abuse
exaggeration of the child victim's oppositional behavior
denying access to toilet facilities
insulating the child victim and other children in the home from community activities and from school, for example through home schooling
Other case characteristics that frequently occur during a lengthy process of deliberate cruelty include scapegoating of a specific child in the family, the endorsement of unusual and bizarre punishments by a professional, e.g., a physician or therapist, the degradation and humiliation of the scapegoated child by all family members, and emotional “meltdowns” by the child which perpetrators believe justify their extreme punishments. In addition, children who die following torture are often school age, a marked difference from the usual pattern of child maltreatment fatalities in which 80% of child victims are 0-3 at the time of the fatal incident.
There has been insufficient discussion among practitioners, scholars and advocates regarding why so many cases that involve torture have involved foster parents and adoptive parents. In 2017, Natalie Finn, a 16-year-old adopted youth in Des Moines, Iowa
died of starvation after school staff (including a school nurse) made repeated attempts to alert CPS to indicators of child maltreatment. Natalie had told school staff that she sometimes went without eating for 3-4 days at a time.
Cases of torture of school age children usually begin in the kind of power struggles common within families, and then spiral out of control as child victims escalate (rather than suppress) oppositional behavior over food intake, bathroom behavior, lying and stealing, sibling abuse or other typical misbehavior of school age children. For the most part, perpetrators are not mentally ill, drug addicted or just plain mean. Rather, parents who engage in these power struggles come to believe that extreme measures are necessary to crush the will of an oppositional child. Punishments that seem extraordinarily cruel to persons outside the family seem necessary to caregivers confronted with extreme oppositional behaviors and “meltdowns” which they view as willful. Tyler DeLeon's foster mother felt justified in her actions which included attempting to stop school staff from allowing Tyler to go to the bathroom unaccompanied where he might gorge on toilet water. She wanted to be exonerated in a court of law!
Parents sometimes have professional support or a religious justification for their actions, but, first and foremost, they have lost self control in a power struggle which they feel they must win at all costs. Caregivers become (first) perpetrators of abuse and then torturers of children by degree, not all at once, and through a process in which an ordinary power struggle with an emotionally disturbed child gradually becomes infected to the point where starving a child to death, or allowing a youth to die from hypothermia, seems reasonable or at least unavoidable. There is no easy answer to the question of when abusive punishment becomes torture though, in extreme cases, this threshold has been crossed to an astonishing degree. However, any punishment that appears designed to inflict severe pain and to humiliate a child is a warning sign, for example, placing a young child in an extremely cold bath for several minutes or forcing a child to stand in the corner with her/his hands lifted over their head for hours; or forcing a disobedient child to retrieve his bowel movement from the toilet and bury it in the yard.
Child deaths resulting from prolonged abuse and torture also occur in birth families, of course. It would be difficult to find a more horrific child death than the case of Gabriel Fernandez, an 8 year old child who died in Los Angeles in 2012. A story in the Tacoma News Tribune during April 2016 asserts that Gabriel's mother and mother's boyfriend “doused him with pepper spray, forced him to eat his own vomit and locked him in a cabinet with a sock stuffed in his mouth to muffle his screams.” Other news stories describe other abuse suffered by this child: beatings with a small bat, metal hanger and belt buckle over several months, teeth knocked out in these beatings, being shot in the chest with a BB gun. Gabriel was forced to wear girl's clothes to school; like all torturers of both children and adults, his caregivers sought to degrade and dehumanize him. Repeated CPS reports did not result in persistent interventions on this child's behalf. Five child welfare employees in Los Angeles were eventually indicted for their actions or inaction in this case.
The events leading to Gabriel Fernandez's death included two factors that often occur when children are tortured by a birth parent:
1. The child was separated from his mother for a lengthy period of time during his early childhood.
2. The mother's boyfriend had an active role in the physical and emotional abuse of the child.
Gabriel had been raised by relatives for most of his early life due to his mother's incarceration. Events that interfere with the normal development of parent-child attachment and emotional commitment due to prolonged separation is a risk factor for physical and emotional abuse following reunification. Any child welfare caseworker and decision maker who works to reunify children placed in out-of-home care at a young age must be cognizant of how parent-child conflicts can spiral out of control in the first several months following reunification. This is not to say that safe reunification of children after lengthy placement in foster care is impossible, but there are inherent risks which must be taken into account.
Are CPS systems prepared to recognize and deal with torture?
Public confidence in child protection systems in developed countries around the world has been shaken by the failure to protect children who have been victims of extreme cruelty at the hands of caregivers despite (in many cases of torture) multiple CPS reports and investigations. It may seem incredible to policymakers, child advocates and concerned citizens that CPS caseworkers and supervisors would fail to protect children who had experienced dozens (at least) of incidents of physical abuse, been systematically starved and/or denied water, locked out of the home in cold weather and humiliated and degraded by family members in a variety of ways. However, to those who work in or around child protection, these cases often present difficult assessment challenges:
In the initial stages of power struggles, children may not have physical injuries, even minor injuries. These cases may begin with emotional abuse and with neglect rather than physical abuse. Caregivers may deliberately refrain from inflicting visible injuries while engaging in disciplinary practices that cause extreme physical pain.
Children, including school-age children, may be afraid to “disclose” how they are being treated by family members to CPS caseworkers or other professionals. Children may be deeply afraid of the consequences of saying something to a caseworker or community professional that might anger their parents and lead to even more severe punishment.
CPS caseworkers may give little weight to information regarding emotional abuse of children unless the child is also physically injured.
Caseworkers may give a birth parent, foster parent or adoptive parent the benefit of the doubt in making sense of conflicting stories of caregiver and child when a child's oppositional behavior has been a difficult challenge for caregivers and school staff.
If the first and second CPS investigations result in a finding of “unfounded” regarding allegations of child maltreatment, confirmation bias will likely influence decision making in future investigations.
The torture of children is an infrequent (though, unfortunately, no longer rare) phenomenon in child protection casework. Even experienced CPS staff are unlikely to have had much experience assessing and intervening in cases of severe and deliberate cruelty targeted at children. Most cases of physical abuse of children involve excessive discipline that does not come close to deliberate and prolonged cruelty. For this reason, CPS staff may not have developed the holistic pattern recognition that is characteristic of highly skilled practitioners in any profession in which assessment skills and recognition based decision making is required (see Gary Klein's Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, 1998).
It is uncertain to what extent child welfare training programs offer basic training on torture to newly hired casework staff. I have heard child welfare professionals in Washington State question whether the torture of children (with specific examples and photographs) should be discussed in basic training, on the grounds that this discussion might cause inexperienced caseworkers to abandon child welfare employment within a few weeks or months! Caseworkers may never have been informed of reasonable expectations for investigations of allegations of prolonged denial of food and water such as requiring children to be examined by a physician, and periodic weigh-ins of a child for several months.
In addition, denial and minimization of torture of children by birth parents, foster parents and adopted parents is common among child welfare advocates and professionals. I occasionally hear of well meaning (but naïve) advocates stating in meetings that “no parent gets up in the morning intending to abuse, or harm, their child.” There appears to be a deep seated fear among some policymakers, child advocates and scholars that discussion of the horrific abuse of children will lead to the demonization of abusive parents. However, it will be impossible for the child welfare profession to develop adequate responses to the torture of children if an ideological commitment to helping birth parents, supporting foster parents, or increasing adoptions leads to a refusal to acknowledge events that challenge these commitments. Child welfare advocates often operate more on the basis of ideology than evidence, a tendency that has persisted for decades.
Is there a “treatment” for torture?
Power struggles between parents and oppositional children are common, and can usually be redirected even after some degree of abusive punishment. Parenting education programs such as Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) are often effective in eliminating abusive discipline in the early stages of power struggles. It is a different challenge to stop cruel and inhumane treatment of children once parents have begun to enjoy harming a child (despite their denial), and have developed strongly held beliefs to justify their behavior. In past decades, adoptive parents and therapists sometimes appealed to the diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder to explain and justify bizarre punishments or therapies. When extreme cruelty directed at children is in full flower, there is no widely used treatment that can reliably alter a parent's motives and their distorted thinking. In these circumstances, it is dangerous to depend on parenting skills programs in case plans and court orders, or to accept a parent's remorse at its face value. Torture sometimes kills children, but it is soul death for perpetrators whatever their rationale, role or employment.
Dowd, Patrick , Severe Abuse of Adopted Children Committee Report, Office of the Family and Children's Ombudsman, Tukwila, Washington & Department of Social and Health Services, Olympia, Washington, September 2012.
Klein, Gary, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1998.
Knox, B., Starling, S., Feldman, K., Kellog, N., Frasier, L. & Tipula, S., “Child Torture as a Form of Child Abuse,” Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, published online, February 27, 2014.
Staglin, D., “Prosecution says adopted girl died in 'house of horror',” US Today, September 6, 2013.
“Why did Tyler DeLeon die?” Spokane Spokesman Review, November 13, 2005.
The report I discussed in the February 2018 Sounding Board, Mortality of CPS Clients in Washington State From Birth to Age Four, has been posted by the new Department of Children, Youth and Families on its website.
Sounding Board commentaries, 2009-18, can be accessed at www.deewilsonconsulting.com.