Preventing child abuse: police, nonprofit discuss resources amid recent cases of alleged serious child abuse in Indiana

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INDIANAPOLIS — Two times within the last few weeks, alleged cases of child abuse in central Indiana have resulted in the death or catastrophic injuries of a child under a year old.

According to a probable cause affidavit, 21-year-old Kylie Leitenberger of Shelbyville is accused of causing catastrophic injuries to her infant, who was just 7 weeks old at the time the child was admitted to a Shelbyville hospital on Aug. 22.

After the baby was flown to Riley Hospital, physicians and child abuse investigators determined the infant had two skull fractures, two subdural hematomas (blood pooling between the brain and skull,) a torn neck ligament, “extensive hypoxic damage to the brain,” retinal hemorrhaging in both eyes, and a lacerated spleen and liver.

Documents show Leitenberger told investigators she was frustrated when she was unable to stop the child from crying and that she threw the baby on a wooded changing table and squeezed the victim “very hard” due to frustrations.

In a separate case from late Aug., an Indianapolis father, Brandon Herring, remains behind bars in Marion County. He’s accused of a deadly case of child abuse against his son, Jaxson Lee Thompson, who was just four months old at the time of his death.

According to court documents, Herring initially denied harming the child, then admitted he dropped the boy before confessing to violently shaking the baby.

Authorities want people to know that there are resources and programs to help families get the support they need before a crime like these occur.

Stephen Guynn Jr., a child abuse investigator with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, said his unit deals with crimes against children, ranging from sexual abuses to physical abuses, and neglect cases.

He said these crimes occur often, not only locally, but nationwide and worldwide.

“Often these kids they don’t have people that you would think be there to protect them, to provide for them, to keep them safe,” said Guynn. “A lot of times those are the people who are preying on them.”

In a 2019 federal report analyzing data from across the U.S., Indiana ranked second in the nation in its child abuse rate.

This year, data from the Indiana Department of Child Services shows there were more than 133,000 hotline reports in the first seven months of 2021. Those include calls, faxes, mail-ins and the agency added, some calls received on the hotline turn into more than one report per call.

In its highest month, Indiana DCS was averaging around 701 calls to the Indiana Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline on business days and 238 per weekend day. It’s staffed around-the-clock and the agency said anyone who suspects a child is being harmed should call the hotline as soon as possible.

The number for the hotline is (800) 800-5556 and Indiana DCS said every call is answered promptly by an intake specialist trained to ask questions that help the caller through the reporting process.

Because Indiana is a mandatory reporting state, everyone, by law, is required to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect.

“It is not just our teachers, coaches, social workers, doctors, etc., who bear this burden,” said a spokesperson for Indiana DCS.

A person reporting also doesn’t need to have all of the details. DCS said anything that can help them with information is a good place for their team to start and that every report which meets the standard definition of child abuse or neglect will be recommended for assessment.

DCS said everyone can remain anonymous, so if you call to report a suspected case, the agency will never share your information or the source they received it.

At the Marion County Child Advocacy Center, a division of the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, deputy prosecutors, IMPD Child Abuse Detectives, DCS investigators and caseworkers all work together to coordinate a response to child abuse reports in Marion County, ensuring all cases are given equal importance.

When IMPD’s Child Abuse detectives are involved in a case, they’re wearing multiple hats.

Guynn explained, “in this unit a lot of times we’re trying to assist the kids two-fold, obviously trying to fill that gap for the people who should be protecting them and also bringing justice for them in these instances where they’re being victimized.”

“Almost every case we have there’s something very extreme that’s going on there and you know, we have to dig and find out, get as much information as we can,” he explained.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, Guynn said their unit and IMPD are there to help protect children and those around them in many of these situations.

“We just try to do the best that we can, whether it’s through the investigation, providing resources, education, to try to help make sure that the things that we see, the things that we’re investigating, don’t continue to happen, so that we can try to minimize them as much as possible,” said Guynn.

The reality is, when IMPD Child Abuse detectives are involved in a case, it usually means there has already been some form of abuse suspected, however, Guynn wants people to know that there are ways to act proactively in hopes of preventing anything like this from happening.

In the case of the infant injured in Shelbyville, court documents showed the mother of the child allegedly blamed frustrations over her baby’s nonstop cries as the reason for what happened.

So what should you do if you find yourself in a similar situation?

In cases where people may feel frustrated, tired, overwhelmed and unsure of what to do, there’s a few things to keep in mind, Guynn said.

“When it’s getting tough and things are getting difficult for them, they feel like they’re alone. Well, they’re not,” he shared. “You just try to let them know, hey you’re not alone. When these things occur, you know there are steps you can take to keep yourself in the appropriate position so that you don’t injure the kid.”

He said a few simple steps might be stepping away, taking deep breaths or even having a plan in place of who to call if you find yourself overwhelmed. The choice to take a moment could save a situation from turning into an irreversible one.

“If you’re alone there and you have reached that point, there’s nothing wrong with placing the baby somewhere safe, like a crib for example, and walking away for a few minutes,” said Guynn. “Just try to make sure that you recognize your limits in these situations because we all have them, but some there’s different variables that play a part, for example having a newborn you’re very tired.”

One of the most simple steps that parents can take, said Guynn, is talking to your child’s pediatrician, who would not only have a list of resources to meet the needs or concerns you are having, but also to help you understand your baby’s needs and if a cry could even mean something more.

After all, babies and young children only have the ability to communicate in so many ways, unlike adults.

“There are also many different organizations that you can look into that will provide those types of pieces of information, but also classes and things of that nature to also help you kind of move along.”

Enlisting these resources preventatively can mean the difference of making a call or time investment in your well-being, or losing a child and ending up behind bars.

“Unfortunately speaking this happens a lot. When kids are shaken, when kids are abused during these moments, the consequences are dire,” said Guynn. “We’re talking about some major felonies here that could occur with the parents involved, even if you didn’t necessarily mean to do that.”

Even more critical are the potential consequences to the child themselves.

Guynn said, “The child, when you do those things, they could have severe brain damage, they could have mental retardation issues, they could have blindness, or worst case, which happens a lot more than people think, they could die.”

IMPD reminds, should a person ever find themselves in a situation where actions led to a child being shaken or potentially harmed, the first thing and best thing people need to do is take that child to receive medical care.

Waiting can lead to long-term, even deadly, consequences and potentially more severe legal implications.

MORE RESOURCES FOR HOOSIERS

The list of child advocacy and family services organizations across central Indiana is significant in size.

According to Annie Martinez, vice president of Communications and Development at Children’s Bureau, Inc., the nonprofit is the largest prevention of child abuse and neglect in the central Indiana region.

The organization aims to break the “cycle” of abuse and neglect and work with families to eliminate things in their lives that lead to instability.

A major part of their work is done with families they meet that are referred to them through the nonprofit’s partnership with hospital systems, school systems, churches and several other providers.

“That is not to say that there are not people that self-refer, because they do. If there is family that gets in challenging situations, people talk to people so a lot of times one who has been served by Children’s Bureau will encourage them to reach out to us,” said Martinez.

“We want to provide safe environments for children and to stabilize the family so that they can be self-sufficient,” said Martinez.

She said prevention work is at least half of what Children’s Bureau does.

One program through the organization, which can be found in not only Indianapolis, but also Connersville, Columbus, Muncie, Noblesville, Plainfield and Terre Haute, is Community Partners for Child Safety (CPCS).

It’s a statewide program that works to prevent abuse and neglect by connecting at-risk families with community resources. Case workers are then assigned to conduct weekly in-home visits to help parents identify and meet their goals to stabilize families and alleviate stress that may put kids at risk.

The goals set through CPCS include things like finding safe, affordable housing to seeking unemployment or addressing addictions or mental health concerns.

During the pandemic, Martinez said they have had many more referrals and worked to help these families by providing for basic needs like rental assistance, diapers, cleaning supplies and items hard to come by at times, like toilet paper.

The organization’s caseworkers are trained to help families, even if it is with a resource, they may not be able to provide themselves. They can still help make the connection.

“When a case manager sits down with the family, they’re gonna talk about what are your needs, what are your unmet needs, and then identify resources that the family probably doesn’t know about,” said Martinez. “There’s a multitude of them and it can be a little overwhelming and confusing and so that is part of our case managers’ role.”

“As a large provider, if we don’t provide the services, we’re certainly gonna know where to send the family to get the services,” she said.

While working to prevent abuse in families, Martinez said sometimes the most needed service, is just working new or soon-to-be parents.

“Sometimes it’s just skills related to parenting because we’re breaking a cycle. Often times we are breaking a cycle,” she added.

Like many agencies, Martinez said Children’s Bureau is a non-judgement environment and she encourages anyone with questions, seeking assistance, or wanting to learn more, to contact their organization.

Prevent Child Abuse Indiana reminds that anyone with child abuse or neglect reports, they must report those directly to the DCS hotline, as mentioned above, rather than individual agencies.

Their organization also works to advocate for preventative policies and programs across the state and also provides on its website, educational materials. Each year, it distributes more than 200,000 brochures on subjects from child abuse to gun safety.

You can also print your own copy of the brochures right off the organization’s website and share them in public places where people tend to frequent. A spokesperson for Prevent Child Abuse Indiana said this way, people can access them in places less formal, like the grocery store checkout lines or at pharmacies, places considered more non-traditional.

The agency also offers presentations to help prevent child abuse and neglect. Like many things during the pandemic, these sessions are even offered virtually for those wanting to educate on the materials.

LINKS TO RESOURCES IN CENTRAL INDIANA

Click on the link to any of the resources below to be directed to their organizations.

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