CASA can make a difference

Published 5:16 am Sunday, July 6, 2008

Even one abused child is too many.

In Pearl River County in 2006, there were 416 reported cases of child abuse. There is a way to help these children through Court Appointed Special Advocates: CASA.

That is what July 19 is all about — an event which our police, firefighters and the Sheriff’s department are helping to make it a success.

I would like to say that the different law enforcement groups, Sheriff David Allison, Chief Jim Luke, Deputy Chief David Ervin, Fire Chief Keith Brown, Judge Richelle Lumpkin, District Attorney Hal Kittrell, and Attorney Ed Peckinpaugh have all contributed greatly to helping get this organization off the ground.

The real troops in the trenches have been Antonette Morlas, Tammy Weller, Bonnie Hodge, Karen Rohrbacker, and Kim Mittelstaedt… They are the real heroes for the children.

Below you’ll find the story I wrote, originally published in the Item on June 17, 2007, about just one baby caught in the system. It is what happened to this little girl that galvanized Kim Mittelstaedt and me to try to bring this organization to Pearl River County:

“PICAYUNE — “No bite baby. No, no bite baby,” an eighteen month old child cried out when she saw her biological father. Her nights are filled with nightmares and she refused to let her foster care father come close to her for three weeks after she was first placed in foster care. Foster parents Jamie and Matthew Kite of Poplarville poured out the story of one little girl.

“We knew something wasn’t right,” Jamie Kite said. She and her husband Matthew offer one of the very few foster care homes that Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) can call in Pearl River County when a child must be removed from immediate danger.

“This was beyond shy,” Kite said. “Even the social worker said that it wasn’t a normal reaction. People at church noticed that her reaction to men was abnormal. She wasn’t just being shy, she was terrified. It wasn’t just us seeing this,” she noted. “The people at church can tell you what she was like before a visit with this man and her behavior after a visit with him. It took us almost a week to get her calmed down, and her security reassured. We had to bribe her to see her biological father by telling her she would be playing with toys. The counselors at Life Resource can tell you that. They didn’t understand her baby talk when she said, ‘No by baby.’ Or when she said, ‘Wha da?’ She was saying ‘No bite baby,’ and ‘What’s that?’ They thought she was asking where her daddy was.”

The visits with the biological father were scheduled for every two weeks at a neutral location. After several visits, the child started whining when they pulled into the parking lot and would try to get back in the car. She would have to be baited with toys to get her to calm down and into the back room to meet her biological father.

“It was like she recognized the building when we drove up,” Kite said. “That first visit, we were in a room with the baby and this man walks in reeking of alcohol with teeth that looked horrible. Like those pictures of people that use meth. He was talking about why the baby wouldn’t have anything to do with him. She stayed as far away from him as she could get. No. I didn’t like the way it went, at all.

“The first night after the visit she wouldn’t have anything to do with Matthew. When he said something to her, she ran behind the couch. She wasn’t like that with women. In the grocery store or where ever, she’d even hold out her arms to women, but not with men.”

The Kites reported everything they observed to the social worker at MDHS. They were told, “We’ll look into it.” The Kites believed the issue would be resolved, but the visits continued and were scheduled for every week. They believed no one paid attention to their concerns. Especially when MDHS told the Kites that the child would most likely be going back to her biological father.

Cheryl Bounds, the social worker for the case, said she was not at liberty to discuss anything about the case.

“We were terrified for her,” Kite said. “It wasn’t because we wanted to adopt her, we would in a heart beat, but that wasn’t why we didn’t want her going back to her biological father. We were so scared for her safety. And my concern is for her rights. We don’t know where she is or if she’s safe. The reason we got her was because MDHS had no place for her to go. We were told her mother had gone to the battered women’s home in fear for her safety and that of the baby’s. Then the mother had to be treated for psychological problems and the baby had no place safe, so they called us.”

With the child’s reaction to not only the father but toward other men after each visit, Kite suspected sexual abuse. She and her husband took the child to a pediatrician to see if there were any signs of sexual abuse. Upon examination, the couple was told the baby had been away from the molestation for too long, any outward signs that may have been there had healed. The way sexual abuse is diagnosed was considered too invasive for a child that young. The pediatrician at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans told the foster parents that “something happened to this child,” recommending to them they get her some counseling to help her through the trauma. The Kites never received a bill for the examination and assumed MDHS paid that bill.

The counselor advised the Kites to document everything, and to start a daily journal about the child’s behavior. She told them after play therapy with the child that she recognized some behavior abnormalities. The Kites were told that any guy could have molested the child, but the trigger seemed to be the father. She told them she would call MDHS and send a statement that it would not be in the child’s best interest for her to go back to her biological father. The Kites never received a bill for this therapy and assumed MDHS paid that also.

Because of confidentiality, the counselor could not talk about this case. She could not confirm or deny that a statement about the child was sent to MDHS. She referred the search for information to MDHS which is bound by the confidentiality law as well.

The couple video taped the little girl in the throes of the nightmares she had every night following a visit with the father. She would cry out for “Mommy, mommy!” At one point she was crying and pushing down at her diaper as if she were pushing something or someone away from her bottom area.

A letter from the child’s counselor, Marilyn Gouguet, LCSW, BCD was sent to Joey Fillingane, an attorney hired by the Kites to protect the child’s rights during the youth court hearings. The letter concluded:

“Due to (the child’s) age, she is limited in the words that she can use to express what has happened to her. This makes for a very vulnerable child being returned to a questionable situation. The first priority should be the protection and well-being of this child.”

Armed with the evidence of the daily journal outlining the child’s behavior, the video tape and the letter from the professional counselor, the Kites were sure the child’s safety was assured, and that she would not be returned to the biological father.

According to Mississippi Code Title 93, 93-15-103, “6) In any case where a child has been removed from the parent’s home due to sexual abuse or serious bodily injury to the child, the court shall treat such case for termination of parental rights as a preference case to be determined with all reasonable expedition.”

“But we weren’t allowed to speak for the child or to testify to her behavior,” Kite said. “Who better to tell the judge than the foster parents who’ve lived with her for several months?”

The Kites greatest fear was realized. With heavy hearts, they packed the little clothes and the little girl’s toys, then waved at her as she rode off to go live with her father. That was the last day they saw her.

The youth court judge who ordered the child to be placed back with the biological father did not return calls requesting comment.

This is just one situation that unfolded in Pearl River County during 2006. MDHS reports by county the statistics of abuse/neglect investigations on their website at http://www.mdhs.state.ms.us (click on Abuse/Neglect Reports). In 2006, according to the report, Pearl River County had 416 reports of abuse and neglect against children. MDHS investigations found evidence in 27 cases of sexual abuse against children; 31 cases of physical abuse; 35 cases of physical neglect; three cases of medical neglect; five cases of emotional abuse; and zero cases of exploitation. There were 4,042 substantiated cases of abuse against children in the state during 2006.”

The CASA fundraiser “Family Fun Day” event will take place 10 a.m. – 2 p.m., July 19 in Jack Read Park on Goodyear Blvd. in Picayune. Bring the whole family for face painting, finger printing crafts, decorating contest and cake auction, BBQ by the Fire and Police Departments, Sno-Balls, Fun Jumper, “I Dunked the Sheriff” booth and live music.

There is a food ticket competition: Crime Fighters vs. Fire Fighters. Who would you like to see win? Food tickets can be purchased at YOUR favorite department: Fire Station 1 (behind Claiborne Hill),601-798-7862; the Picayune Police Department, 601-798-7411 or at the Sheriff’s Office at the Poplarville Court House, 601-403-2340.

Bring your own chair. The activity tickets will be sold at the Park on the day of the event.

For more information call 601-798-3122.