The young victims
Two children are dead and a third has a fractured skull — all results of suspected child abuse in a two-month period.
|(Photo illustration: Scott Williams/Sentinel-Tribune
Wood County isn’t accustomed to these type of crimes. Though no officials are suggesting the severity and frequency of the cases is a new norm for the county, the cases have shaken those whose jobs it is to prevent, investigate and prosecute child abuse.
The victims ranged from 3 months to 2 years old:
• Two-year-old Emma Zehnpfennig died March 1 of “abusive head trauma.” The autopsy showed this was not the first time Emma had been abused.
• Three-month-old Carter Steinmiller died May 5, with abuse being suspected. His arm had reportedly been broken days before his death.
• Five-month-old Hayden Taylor was taken to the hospital for reported seizures on April 26. Tests showed the infant had a fractured skull.
All three incidents remain under investigation, so many details aren’t available. But this much could be gathered from sources involved:
Emma, of 1074 Fairview Ave., Bowling Green, was taken to Wood County Hospital on Feb. 22 by her mother’s boyfriend, Nathan Brenner. She was unresponsive and transferred to Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo.
Her death was ruled a homicide. Lucas County Deputy Coroner Dr. Diane Scala-Barnett told the Sentinel-Tribune that Emma’s injuries were “inflicted, they are non-accidental.”
According to Bowling Green Police Division reports, Emma’s mother, Tabitha Zehnpfennig, told police that she had reason to suspect Brenner had harmed her daughter at other times since he moved into the family’s apartment last fall. The report noted bruising, a black eye and a possible cigarette burn on Emma, all which the mother said her boyfriend called “accidents.”
“There were other indications there was abuse in the past against Emma,” said Bowling Green Police Chief Brad Conner.
The mother did not report any of the suspected abuses to police. She was reportedly home asleep when her daughter was taken to the hospital.
Zehnpfennig told police she had worked with Wood County Children’s Services in the past, but no other details were available.
Carter, of 18330 Brim Road, Bowling Green, was taken to the hospital by EMS after his mom, Rebecca Steinmiller, called 911 to report her baby was not breathing.
Lt. Rod Konrad was on road patrol nearby on Ohio 25 when the call came in, according to Eric Reynolds, chief deputy with the Wood County Sheriff’s Office. Konrad was on the scene within a minute of the 911 call and started CPR on the infant. Carter was later pronounced dead at Wood County Hospital.
The autopsy results have not been released, however, Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn said “there are some things that rose our suspicions.”
Steinmiller has been charged with child endangering for not seeking treatment for her son’s broken arm, which was reportedly injured four days prior to his death.
Steinmiller has other children, but they don’t live with their mother, Reynolds said.
Hayden, of 1520 Clough St., Bowling Green, was taken to St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center after experiencing seizures. During an examination he was found to have a fractured skull. He was removed from the care of his mother, Erin Taylor, and placed in the custody of Wood County Children’s Services.
“I’m told that boy is going to have some lifelong injuries,” Conner said. Children’s Services officials could not comment on Hayden’s condition.
According to Conner, a common thread in these suspected child abuse cases appears to be parents ill-prepared mentally and socially for the role of parenting.
“Some people are not equipped for parenting,” Conner said. “There’s a lot more to parenting than giving birth to a child.”
Another commonality appears to be low socioeconomic status.
“That’s not to say child abuse doesn’t happen in all segments of society,” Conner said. “But in our two cases, that’s a common thread.” The thread also stretches to the third case.
Investigating child abuse cases with victims so young can be difficult, according to Conner.
“You don’t have a victim who can communicate with you,” he said.
It’s not always clear who had access to the child during a certain time period, making it more difficult to find answers.
“Sometimes you get people willing to cooperate with the investigation and other times you don’t,” Conner said. “These cases are tough, emotionally tough.”
Reynolds agreed. “You can’t let emotions overcome your objectivity of the investigation,” he said. “Emotions cannot drive the investigation. Facts need to drive the investigation. We want justice, too. But that only comes from a thorough and objective investigation.”
Seeking justice for those unable to defend themselves
When a child is the victim of a crime, the public cries out for swift and certain justice.
Perhaps more than with other crimes, the media and citizens demand that law enforcement and the courts come to the defense of a child unable to defend itself.
Wood County Prosecuting Attorney Paul Dobson said last week he heard the rumblings of impatience, but he couldn’t let that public pressure affect his office’s actions on the three recent cases of severe child abuse in Bowling Green.
“I can’t react to that,” he said. “They are still under investigation. It’s vital that we are convinced that the individual committed the crime.”
“You may see a delay. We see an investigation,” Dobson said of the cases.
The initial wait was over Wednesday when a Wood County Grand Jury handed down indictments.
Nathan Brenner, 35, was indicted for the death of 2-year-old Emma Zehnpfennig, March 1. Brenner, Liberty Center, was the live-in boyfriend of Emma’s mother. He was also indicted for involuntary manslaughter and two charges of child endangering.
Mothers of two other Bowling Green area infants have also been charged.
Rebecca Steinmiller, 25 was charged for child endangering after allegedly not seeking medical care for her 3-month-old son’s broken arm. Her son later died on May 5, and autopsy results have not been released.
Erin Taylor, 19, was indicted for child endangering after her 5-month-old son was found to have a fractured skull April 26. He has been removed from her custody.
Steinmiller is already in custody. Bench warrants were issued for Brenner and Taylor.
Cases where small children are abused by caregivers are very difficult, Dobson said last week. Black and white evidence is not left behind, such as in fraud investigations.
“Shaken baby (syndrome) typically occurs without any witnesses,” he said. And few clues are provided by the very young victims. “There’s no history to the child’s behavior.”
While the injuries can be identified by the medical examiner, the time when the abuse occurred and the identity of the perpetrator are sometimes difficult to determine, according to Chuck Bergman, assistant prosecuting attorney.
Since the effects of shaken baby syndrome sometime mimic the symptoms of colic, the exact time of the injuries is sometimes hard to prove.
“There are no visible signs the baby has been shaken,” Bergman said. “It becomes very difficult to figure out who has done it.”
So even if the abuse is proven, “that still doesn’t tell us who did it,” Dobson said.
Further complicating the investigations is the fact that family members and trusted caregivers have to be questioned.
“No one wants to believe the person committed the offense,” Dobson said.
Sensitivity is paramount.
“We certainly don’t want to interrogate or question the emotion of a parent who is truly grieving,” Dobson said. “But the investigation has to be done. Everyone is grieving. All of your witnesses are emotional.”
Wood County has protocol requiring Children’s Services staff to work along side law enforcement on any child fatality where abuse is suspected, Bergman said.
“We’ll go where the evidence takes us,” Dobson said.
Ugly issue of abuse often unreported
When suspected child abuse is reported in Wood County, Children’s Services workers do not swoop in and take the children.
In fact, of the 810 cases of child abuse investigated in the county last year, just 28 children were removed from their homes and put in foster care.
“The last thing we want to have happen with families is to remove the children,” said Sandi Carsey, supervisor of Children’s Services.
But officials worry that often neighbors, family members or friends who suspect child abuse are reluctant to report their concerns because they fear the children will be removed from their home.
“I don’t think there’s a home in the county that wants us knocking on their doors,” Carsey said.
But the reality of Children’s Services’ involvement is often very different from the fears.
“We ask, ‘What do we need to do together to keep your family safe? How can we help you stay together?’” Carsey said of the more likely response to families. “We want to help them become better parents.”
But Children’s Services can’t prevent child abuse if no one reports it.
“When in doubt, call us,” said Dave Wigent, director of Wood County Department of Job and Family Services, which includes Children’s Services.
Wigent said the recent severe cases — with two fatalities and one fractured skull — are likely a “statistical blurb.” Clusters of abuse have occurred in the past.
“They haven’t necessarily become a trend,” he said. “But we have an obligation to take the situation seriously.”
Wigent said he is not allowed to discuss specifics of any Children’s Services cases. But according to a Bowling Green Police Division report involving one of the recent child fatalities, Children’s Services had worked with the family in the past. Wigent would not explain the type of involvement the agency had with that family, nor if the agency had any prior contact with the other two recent serious child abuse cases.
Children’s Services saw a bump in child abuse and neglect cases last year, with 810 investigated compared to 719 the prior year. The six investigators with Children’s Services average 11 new cases a month. The ongoing caseworkers carry an average of 12 cases. Both numbers are manageable, Carsey said.
Officials worry that while their message of child abuse prevention is reaching some — it’s most likely getting to those already convinced.
Every April, the office puts up pinwheels in Bowling Green representing each abuse and neglect case investigated in the county.
“When the pinwheels go up, the phones start ringing” with reports of suspected abuse, Carsey said.
For Children’s Services workers, the recent cases are disturbing.
“These cases are very frustrating and heartbreaking to them,” Carsey said.
Wigent and Carsey are now talking about taking their message to different crowds that haven’t been saturated by the prevention pitch — senior centers to reach grandparents who may have concerns about their grandchildren, PTO meetings at schools, and apartment complexes.
“We need to get to the neighbors, the extended family,” Carsey said. “They have the old stigma that Children’s Services will fly in and take the kids and no one sees them again. That’s not the way it goes.”
This is what happens when a report is made. After the initial complaint is made to an investigator, a supervisor determines if the report meets the standard for an investigation.
“Within 24 hours that worker is attempting to make face-to-face contact with the family,” Carsey said. The state requires contact to be made in 72 hours, but Wood County Children’s Services has set its standard at 24 hours.
The worker talks to the parents and children, and other agencies involved with the family.
An average of one-quarter of the cases reported are substantiated as abuse or neglect. Some families voluntarily agree to services, others have to follow a court-ordered plan.
A child is removed from the home only if that is ordered by juvenile court.
“There are lots of check and balances,” Wigent said.
If at all possible, children are placed in the homes of relatives.
“We always look for relatives before removal,” Carsey said.
Of those removed, the “vast majority” end up going home or to relatives, she added.
Wigent and Carsey stressed the need for people suspecting abuse to report their concerns. Reports can be made anonymously at the (419)-354-9669 hotline. Parents needing help may call The Link, Children’s Resource Center, Behavioral Connections or Family Services.
“So that we can get to them before it becomes a tragedy,” Carsey said.
Babies not made for shaking
Babies are not designed for shaking — any shaking at all.
Dr. Michael Lemon, a Bowling Green pediatrician, understands the frustration of parents with crying children. As the father of a child who was colicky, he knows how the seemingly constant crying can wear on caregivers.
However, as a pediatrician, he knows how even a little shaking of a child can cause irreversible damage.
“You can’t repeat enough times — you never shake a baby,” Lemon said.
Because of medical privacy laws, Lemon said he could not discuss whether any of the three recent victims of serious child abuse in Bowling Green were his patients. But as a physician who has treated countless children over the years, Lemon is troubled by the recent spike in abuse.
He realizes that an irritable child paired with a tired adult can be a tragic combination.
“They are trying to talk to you in the only language they have,” Lemon said of a baby’s crying.
So caregivers unable to tolerate the crying should take a break.
“You need to put your child in a safe place and walk away,” he said. Take a few minutes to calm down. “You’re tired and the baby is tired.”
Shaking a child is especially dangerous during the first couple months, when the baby’s head is relatively large compared to the neck.
But Lemon cautioned, “no shaking is ever a good idea.”
Often there are no visible injuries for victims of shaking. The symptoms health professionals look for include irritability, difficulty staying awake, tremors, vomiting, seizures and difficulty breathing. Depending on the severity, the shaking can result in blindness, brain damage, spinal cord damage or death.
Physicians are trained to identify possible child abuse, with suspicions often raised when the child’s injuries do not jibe with the child’s developmental abilities.
Lemon recalled a 6-month-old child brought in for care for radiator burns on his back. The parents said the burns occurred when their baby was crawling around the room, but became unable to move away from the heater as it was burning his skin.
Physicians like Lemon are also aware of the family risk factors for child abuse:
• Poverty, since those families have “many more stressors.”
• Young parents, who may lack experience and patience.
• Single parents, since they may have no one in the home to share caregiving responsibilities.
• Chronic medical conditions or developmental delays of the child since that adds pressure.
• Family history of abuse, since inappropriate parenting skills may have been passed down.
• Mental health issues, such as depression or bipolar behaviors.
Lemon stressed the impact that financial instability can have on families with young children, since those parents may be struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. Many families with low incomes cannot afford daycare or access to other support systems that can provide temporary relief from parenting responsibilities.
“Poverty plays such a big role,” he said.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, a study of child abuse showed that children covered by Medicaid had rates of serious abuse nearly six times higher than other children.
To look for trends in child deaths, health and social service officials in the county review local child fatalities every year.
“We look for patterns, looking for commonalities that we can respond to,” Lemon said.
Wood County has several programs in place that target families with the risk factors cited above. The programs are designed to reach out to those parents and children early in their development.
“I think we do a pretty good job in the county, but we may have some gaps,” he said. “Obviously we have not achieved 100 percent.”
However, at the same time the county is seeing a bump in child abuse, it is also seeing cuts in state and federal funding for programs trying to reach at-risk families.
“Those are programs I hate to see decimated,” Lemon said.