GREENFIELD — A little girl who police say was stomped to death. A baby boy who doctors say suffered head and spinal injuries before he died.
In the past six months, the deaths of two Greenfield children have been ruled homicides.
The accused killers? Their parents.
Child abuse and neglect cases are on the rise in Indiana, and the trend is reflected locally, officials said. The Department of Child Services saw 240 more reports of child abuse during the first half of 2015 than in the same period the previous year for the central Indiana region encompassing Hancock, Hamilton, Madison and Tipton counties. In Hancock County, DCS officials had seen 73 cases by July 2015; up from 64 by that time in 2014, said James Wide, DCS spokesman.
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Greenfield police have handled some of the county’s most serious neglect cases this year. Since January, the department has investigated nine child neglect cases, including the deaths of two infants whose parents now face criminal charges.
Police said they believe 1-year-old Zoey Wagoner sustained multiple blunt-force traumatic injuries, including lacerations to her liver, that led to her death in late May, and 3-month-old Brayden Jenkins sustained blunt-force trauma to the head before he died at his home last week, court records state.
The department investigated six neglect cases in 2013. That number jumped to 14 the following year.
But two deaths in six months? That’s unusual, said Detective Lt. Randy Ratliff, who leads Greenfield Police Department’s investigations unit.
The fatalities sparked discussions about what can be done to prevent such tragedies, and a number of volunteer groups with goals of preventing child abuse and neglect have popped up in Hancock County this year with the hope that their efforts will educate and unite the community against child abuse.
Those who deal with the issue firsthand believe education is the only way to combat abuse and neglect, and the community as a whole will need to be vigilant for prevention efforts to be successful. New parents need to learn how to properly care for their young children; and the family, friends and neighbors who surround them need to be aware of parents who seem to be struggling and how to help if they suspect a problem, officials say.
Reports of child abuse aren’t necessarily increasing because more children are being harmed more regularly, Wide said. Rather, the creation of a DCS hotline in 2010 that allows Hoosiers to disclose child welfare concerns has made it easier for investigators to gather tips, leading to more cases of physical, mental and sexual abuse, he said.
Increased drug use by adults in the state — police have cited a spike in heroin use in Hancock County — also seems to be fueling the issue of child neglect, Wide said. DCS workers often investigate cases in which drug users have a difficult time prioritizing their children’s needs over their addiction, he said.
Tips about child abuse — whether they come through the hotline or some other means — are always filtered through local police stations so criminal investigations can take place if necessary, officials said. Police officers use the calls DCS receives to look for clues that suggest an investigation is warranted, Ratliff said. For example, a light bruise from a spanking might not warrant a police inquiry, but a hand mark on a child’s face might need further review.
And those investigations can take significant time and manpower for law enforcement, depending on the allegations involved, Ratliff said. When a child dies, the entire investigations unit will likely play a role in the case, he said.
With resources stretched thin, investigators look to the department’s victim advocate and other community stakeholders to take the lead in prevention efforts, officials said.
For many years, nurses and doctors at Hancock Regional Hospital have aimed to educate new parents and other guardians by offering low-cost child care classes, nurse Linda Garrity said.
The hospital’s programs include lessons in safe sleep and and how to tend to crying babies and seek to help parents cope with the stresses of parenthood. But the classes aren’t mandatory; and despite her best efforts to make the classes as attractive as possible — especially to at-risk mothers — only about 25 percent of first-time parents opt to attend, Garrity said. When stories about mistreatment of children swirl through the community, they often leave her wondering what more could have been done, she said.
“We’re obviously not doing enough or we wouldn’t be having these problems,” she said.
Recently, a number of volunteers have decided to join in the effort. Their plan is to equip as many community members as possible with the tools to recognize child abuse and neglect, while also keeping at-risk families informed about where they can receive help if they need it, organizers said.
Prevent Child Abuse Hancock County and the Hancock County Exchange Club — two of the area’s newest advocacy organizations — said their members are turning their attention and conversations to educational efforts in the wake of the arrests in Greenfield as they work to establish themselves within the community.
Prevent Child Abuse Hancock County was formed earlier this year out of the statewide organization of the same name and aim; and the Hancock County Exchange Club, which exists to promote community service while taking firm stands on community issues such as child abuse, began meeting a few months later.
The organizations have similar mission statements, but each serves the community in different capacities, leaders say. The exchange club takes on a financial role, raising money and seeking grants to support local initiatives against child abuse, founding member Jeff Young said. Prevent Child Abuse Hancock County takes the lead in hosting outreach programs and educational initiatives, said Diane Burklow, one of the group’s co-leaders.
Burklow said she and her comrades are brainstorming the best ways to interact with and reach out to families in need of services to find out what aspects of child welfare they struggle with most. Both groups are working to prepare and place educational pamphlets in offices around Greenfield that will address health and safety and list organizations where Hancock County families can get help if needed, organizers said.
If their efforts are successful, each Hancock County resident will know when a child is exhibiting signs of abuse or neglect and how to alert authorities so that the right people can step in before death or injury occurs, organizers said.
While these most recent neglect cases are saddening to those involved with the organizations, they also have helped drive conversations about prevention efforts, Young and Burklow said.
“Every child deserves a chance; every child deserves to be held and loved and cared for,” Young said. “But when people get frustrated … the kids are the ones that suffer.”
Indiana law states that child abuse and neglect can be any situation where a child’s physical or mental health has been endangered because a parent or guardian does not provide proper food, shelter, medical care or supervision; and when injury or death occurs because of the that lack of care.
Signs of neglect and abuse can include:
- Unexplained bruises, lumps, burns and fractures
- Depression, low self-esteem and developmental lags
- Harsh behavior from parents, guardians and other disciplinarians
- Dirty, smelly or torn clothes
- Constant fatigue
- Underweight, begging for or stealing food
- Inability to trust and other emotional disorders
Source: Prevent Child Abuse Indiana
In the past six months, a handful of Greenfield parents have been put into the Hancock County Jail on charges related to alleged child neglect and abuse. Local investigators say the four investigations that led to the arrests were some of the worst they have ever seen. The accusations these mothers and fathers face are wide ranging, officials said:
- After their 1-year-old daughter, Zoey, was found dead in their Greenfield home in May, Jessica Wagoner, 33, and Matthew Wagoner, 31, were charged with murder and neglect of a dependent causing death. Court documents show Zoey sustained multiple blunt-force traumatic injuries, including lacerations to her liver — wounds consistent with being stomped on in the hours before her death, police said.
- Michelle Wilson, 33, and Craig Corbett, 37, did drugs in front of their children, deprived them of food, beat them with belts and coat hangers and threatened to kill them, investigators said, all while letting them live in an apartment infested with cockroaches, soiled with animal waste and filled with piles of garbage, according to court documents. Each faces five felony charges of neglect of a dependent, one for each of their five young children.
- Three-month-old Brayden Jenkins died after suffering neck and spinal injuries, and investigators say the baby’s father, Charles Jenkins, 21, is responsible. Jenkins is in the Hancock County Jail on felony charges including aggravated battery and neglect of a dependent resulting in death.
- Brooke Copp’s 18-month-old son overdosed on opiates and methadone, ingredients found in heroin and some strong prescription pain medicines. Though the toddler is expected to make a full recovery, his 23-year-old mother faces a felony count of neglect of a dependent causing injury, and investigators are working to determine how the child ingested the drugs.
Hoosiers who suspect a child might be in danger can call the Indiana Department of Child Services hotline at 1-800-800-5556 to report child abuse 24 hours day, seven days a week, officials say.