Trisha Torresan's 2-year-old son had been fussy and cranky all day. Caleb missed his nap because they were out doing errands. Now it's dinner time and he doesn't want to eat. As Torresan drags Caleb to the upstairs bedroom of their Phoenix townhouse, she smacks him once or twice.
It is 7 p.m., Feb. 22, 2007. Caleb Hearne will be dead within hours. The fatal blow was struck long before.
Mention Caleb's name and the pain becomes palpable. Members of the social services network and the justice system that work to save children like Caleb grow pale, quiet and grim, even two years after his death.
Caleb's prolonged abuse during his short lifetime is well-documented in court filings and witness testimony in separate cases against his mother and Bruce Ryan Satterlee, her boyfriend at the time. Despite calls from neighbors, friends and family members reporting abuse toward Caleb and his younger sister, Lynna, despite welfare checks by the Department of Human Services, police and even a doctor, Caleb's abuse continued. Ultimately, blunt force trauma to the 30-month-old boy's abdomen damaged his internal organs so severely Caleb died of pancreatic failure.
"We can't be doing enough if we are losing children," says Marlene Mish, director of the Children's Advocacy Center. "I don't mean that to blame, but to save. No one agency is to blame. No one agency can fix it."
A newly formed Jackson County Child Abuse Network is asking tough questions about the way the system currently protects children — and what must change.
"We are going to change the way we deal with child abuse in this county," vows Dee Anne Everson, director of United Way of Jackson County. "We need processes in place so we do the right thing at the right time to save a child's life."
Five children die each day from abuse and neglect across the United States, according to a report from the Every Child Matters Education Fund. Every eight minutes, a child is abused in Oregon. One in four children in Jackson County suffers from abuse or neglect, Mish says, and in 2008, about 950 abused and/or neglected children countywide entered or remained in the child welfare system.
The Child Abuse Network, formed in April, includes representatives from 33 agencies, including health officials, early childhood education specialists, drug and alcohol counselors, child advocates and the district attorney. Members are examining the problem on three fronts: current procedures, prevention and community education.
"We must coordinate prevention and response efforts across all agencies, and also educate the community about the epidemic of child abuse," Everson says.
As the members struggle with "what if" questions, they do know this: Children who are abused tend to have parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, abuse each other, show poor parenting skills and/or demonstrate a failure to protect their children.
"One thing we know for sure, if we treat the whole, we get the best results," Everson says.
Torresan, now 26, and her children's father, Joshua Hearne, 28, both have lengthy rap sheets with multiple felony convictions, including theft and burglary. Torresan began using drugs when she was 12, and by age 21 she is pregnant, using methamphetamine and serving time on an identity theft conviction.
Caleb is born in prison on Aug. 11, 2004.
OnTrack Inc. Executive Director Rita Sullivan acknowledges some people are simply not cut out to be parents. But the vast majority of those who mistreat or neglect their children because of substance abuse can be helped with the right kind of treatment. And the family unit can remain intact, she says.
"We need to be able to detect the difference," Sullivan says.
If Torresan had been enrolled in a program that provided ongoing drug treatment, supervised housing, case management, therapeutic child services and family counseling, might there have been a different outcome? Sullivan wonders.
Soon after Torresan is released from prison in late 2004, she reunites with Hearne. His sister has been caring for Caleb. Torresan takes Caleb and moves in with her mother. She is soon pregnant with Lynna. The young couple's relationship remains volatile. Neighbors report seeing Caleb and Lynna being slapped, smacked and screamed at. Child abuse complaints are filed. The police are called. The couple moves often to avoid nosy neighbors.
Child welfare caseworkers rely upon the eyes and ears of the public when trying to protect child victims, says Pam Bergreen, Jackson County Department of Human Services coordinator. But what the public doesn't understand is the agency is challenged in its efforts to prevent child abuse because of budget constraints, staff cuts and state law, she says.
Under current Oregon law, a parent has a right to use corporal punishment. A legal finding of physical abuse requires the inflicting of visible marks, bruises or injuries on a child, Bergreen says.
"We have to have evidence that demonstrates to an impartial judge that abuse has occurred," she says.
After making a complaint, people generally have one of two questions for child welfare workers: "Why did you take that child?" or "Why didn't you take that child?" she says.
DHS is an agency that responds to child abuse after it happens. Deciphering the facts can be challenging, particularly when dealing with complicated family dynamics, Bergreen says.
"Sorting through that is difficult sensitive work," she says. "We do try to make a plan to address specific concerns that we see."
There are no easy answers for children living in abusive homes, Mish says. Placing a child in the overburdened foster care system creates significant trauma within the family, particularly for the child. And it doesn't necessarily guarantee his safety, she says.
"There is an assumption that if you take a child from one dangerous situation, that the next situation will be better," Mish says. "But there is the same percentage of abuse occurring in foster care as there is in the general population."
Torresan meets her new boyfriend, Bruce Ryan Satterlee, then 25, online while still living with Hearne. Hearne discovers the affair and confronts Torresan. A screaming, violent fight erupts. Hearne is arrested for assaulting Torresan. She moves to Phoenix around Thanksgiving. Satterlee moves in and begins babysitting Torresan's children while she attends school.
Mary-Curtis Gramley, director of the Family Nurturing Center, which provides respite nursery care for parents in crisis, wonders what might have happened if Torresan had brought her children to the Medford center. There would have been an immediate assessment of the family's situation, Gramley says. Perhaps the young mother could have learned coping skills. For sure, Caleb and Lynna would have received nurturing, therapeutic support, she says.
Gramley's ultimate dream is a network of nurseries where any struggling parent can say, "I am not able to take care of my child right now" — before there is a threat of losing custody. Before there is a tragedy.
But the small center at the corner of Fifth and Oakdale has a long waiting list, says Gramley.
"This program needs not to be able to turn anyone away," she says.
After the holidays there are more bruises on Caleb, and more reports. Caleb seems quiet and withdrawn. After Hearne takes Caleb for a visit to his family, police are called to perform a welfare check on the boy. An officer arrives at Torresan's townhouse on Jan. 28, 2007. He asks Torresan to take off Caleb's outer clothing. The boy seems in good spirits. The officer sees shadows under Caleb's eyes, drainage in his ears and a scratch on his nose. But he notes no signs of abuse. Torresan says her son has had the flu. The officer advises Torresan to take Caleb to the doctor for a possible ear infection. He sends a report to DHS. The doctor says Caleb has a common cold.
Children heal quickly from most physical injuries, says Dr. Kerri Hecox, medical director of the Children's Advocacy Center. It is important to know how to talk to children, as well as where and how to look for signs of child abuse, she says. Hecox has been performing training exercises with police, child welfare caseworkers and even other doctors, she says.
"Age dictates a lot of where you'd get bruising," says Hecox. Scrapes and bruises on elbows and knees, for example, are normal for an active young child.
"One thing I tell them is to look at the ears. You don't fall on your ear."
Just weeks prior to Caleb's death, Torresan's mother notices his left ear is bruised. He walked in front of a swing, Torresan tells her. He has begun picking at his lips and his cuticles, often until they are bloody, Torresan notices. She wonders why her son is "acting so moronic."
The assumption that children are so resilient they can simply survive whatever befalls them and move on with their lives is false, says Gramley. The reality is a child's emotional, social and brain development is changing every day and is impacted by his surroundings, she says.
"That's the thing that worries me so much," she says.
Unaddressed stresses driven underground can create anxiety and depression in some children, in others causing them to act out their pain. In either case, the process of healing from abuse and neglect must be supported — in the child and in the adult, Gramley says.
"There needs to be a turnaround in the way the community responds to its members," she says. "A nurturing and care of all its members. An awareness that challenges can be intense, severe and long-standing."
It is about 7 p.m. on Feb. 22, 2007. Caleb is whining. He's picking at his food. He wants down. But he doesn't want to go to bed. Torresan is trying to get him upstairs. Now he's crying. She is losing it, screaming and yelling, and she smacks Caleb. Satterlee follows Torresan up to the bedroom and helps put on a cartoon video. He tells her to go downstairs. The bedroom grows quiet.
Satterlee comes downstairs and tells Torresan to go change her son's dirty diaper. Torresan resists, then makes one trip up the stairs around 8 p.m. The couple watch TV and play on the computer. Satterlee takes another trip up the stairs at around 11 p.m. and begins shouting for Torresan, "There's something wrong with your son!"
Caleb is lying face down on the bed. His lips are blue and his eyes have rolled back in his head. Torresan calls 9-1-1 as Satterlee begins CPR. But it's too late.
Torresan doesn't ride in the ambulance with her son to Rogue Valley Medical Center.
"I knew he was gone," Torresan later tells police.
A detective who saw photos of Caleb's lifeless body said the boy looked "like he went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson." Caleb had two black eyes and a cut across his nose. There were 14 bruises covering his tiny body, on his chest, back, arms, legs, face, neck and left ear. Lynna also had two black eyes, a cut across her nose and bruises to her torso at the time of her brother's death. She was placed in protective custody.
Caleb died from a blow to his abdomen that bruised his liver, stomach and small intestine and destroyed his pancreas, said Dr. James Olson, district medical examiner. Ruling the death a homicide, Olson said the injury likely occurred one to four days prior to Caleb's death.
Torresan eventually admitted she struck Caleb in the face earlier that week, knocking him off his feet and into some packing boxes.
"I don't remember what made me mad," she told police.
She also told officers her own father beat her with a belt and liked to get in an extra lick or two.
"I didn't think that was right," she said.
In March 2007, Torresan pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide for Caleb's death, and first-degree criminal mistreatment for Lynna's abuse. She was sentenced to 31/2 years in prison by Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Ray White.
"As tragic as this case was, there was never any proof she intended to kill her child," says Chief Deputy District Attorney Beth Heckert.
Satterlee, who has two children of his own, stood trial in September 2008 on charges of criminal mistreatment for failing to protect Caleb and Lynna. Torresan, testifying in prison garb, tried to blame Satterlee for the children's bruises and minimized the severity of her discipline.
"I just pop my children," she testified. "I just give them a pop."
Judge Patricia Crain called Torresan a liar and determined the state did not meet its burden of proof against Satterlee.
Heckert contends Satterlee knew Torresan was abusing her children but did nothing to stop it.
"He saw those bruises. He could have made a call," she says. "He could have done something."
Sifting through the facts of this case to find justice for Caleb and for society was difficult, Heckert says.
"This case was very frustrating," Heckert says. "Basically, we had two adults who know what happened to Caleb. They weren't being very cooperative, and Lynna was too young to tell us anything."
Torresan's and Hearne's parental rights to Lynna were severed in family court. Lynna, now almost 4 years old, has been permanently adopted by a family living out of the area, Heckert says.
Satterlee was later convicted of robbing a Shady Cove bank in November 2007. He is currently on probation and living in the area after serving half of a four-year sentence.
Torresan, now 26, has qualified for early parole. She will likely be freed from prison any day, says Heckert.
One of the biggest tragedies of child abuse is that it's not a problem that ends with the moment it happens. There are lifelong costs to be paid by the child and by society, says Everson of United Way.
"We can't be surprised when a toddler gets abused and they act out in middle school or high school, or self-medicate with drugs and alcohol or food, or get lost in criminal activity," Everson says. "The surprise is when their lives don't fall apart. The surprise is when they build their lives in positive ways — that they go to college and get a job and become productive members of our society. We want to create more surprises."
Creating the shift that truly changes how society cares for its children will take more than the efforts of the Jackson County Child Abuse Network. Everyone must become educated on the issue of child abuse and neglect and become an advocate for change, Everson says.
"We must create a community consciousness where every child has to be protected," she says.
Adequate funding for services that support children will have to be a part of any solution, Bergreen says. Some resources, including a program that provided wrap-around family treatment options for families who voluntarily asked for help, are no longer available at DHS. Budget cuts have impacted staffing even as the number of cases continues to increase, Bergreen says.
Timing can be crucial in saving a child's life. Those who witness or even suspect abuse must report it immediately, says Bergreen.
"Always, always make the call," Bergreen says. "Am I my brother's keeper? The answer to that question is, 'Yes.'"
We must talk about the issue of child abuse, and encourage our children to talk, Everson says. Then we all must take action, no matter how small: Write gift cards at the Children's Advocacy Center, volunteer to help a toddler at the Family Nurturing Center, become a court-appointed special advocate, mentor a parent in treatment at an addictions recovery center.
The tragedy of Caleb's death must become a legacy of safety for every child in Jackson County, Mish says.
"We cannot change the past. But we are morally obligated to change the future," she says.
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail email@example.com.