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Saddest Tragedies of Child Abuse: Preventable Cases

December 13, 1987|GARY LANGER | Associated Press

NEW YORK — By the time Kenneth Crespo died, his 3-year-old body bore witness to a month of abuse. His leg was shattered, his liver and lungs damaged, his body covered with more than 70 bruises.

A city coroner who examined the child said he had endured the worst battering she had ever seen. It would have been far more humane, a prosecutor would say later, if Kenneth's foster parents had simply shot him.

The foster parents were convicted last June of killing the boy. But it was the city's own welfare system that placed young Kenneth with the couple, and that later failed to substantiate a report of abuse in the family--a report that might have saved him.

The way society responds to child abuse came under renewed national scrutiny this fall because of the death of Elizabeth Steinberg, a 6-year-old who allegedly died at the hands of her adoptive parents, a lawyer and an editor.

Elizabeth, known as Lisa, was front-page news; strangers shed tears for her.

112 Die a Year

Few knew or cried for Kenneth Crespo or the other 112 children who died of neglect or abuse in New York City last year.

Kenneth's case is among the most troubling of all: It is one of 42 in 1986 in which the city investigated prior reports of maltreatment but failed to substantiate them. Those children remained with their parents, and they died.

"It is true that many of the cases are known and children die anyway. That's a tragic truth," said Eric Brettschneider, deputy commissioner in charge of the city's child and family programs. "But it's only part of the truth." Thousands of other children are saved by intervention, he said.

New York's difficulties in responding to child abuse are a microcosm of the nation's, critics say. Social workers are undertrained, overworked and quickly burn out. In New York, 60% leave their jobs each year.

These workers are called upon to penetrate the fear, shame and loyalty that lead children to deny their abuse. The workers must try to see beyond the facades of normalcy that abusive parents can project. And they are torn between keeping families together or removing children to a much-criticized foster home system.

"There's a horrible, systemic inadequacy," said Robert Hayes, chairman of the Assn. to Benefit Children, an advocacy group that has sued the city over its protection of children. "You have poorly trained, harried workers asked to play God in determining the life of a child."

While the city struggles to investigate reports of abuse involving 70,000 children a year, many other cases never even reach its attention. Most deaths last year, Brettschneider noted, were in families where no abuse was reported previously.

That was not the case with Kenneth Crespo, much of whose short life was spent under the wing of the city's welfare agency. This, from court records and interviews with law enforcers and others, is a portrait of his abuse:

Kenny, as he was known, was born into trouble. According to testimony, he was the result of an adulterous affair by his mother, Gladys Crespo, for which her husband, Jay Taylor, divorced her. She kept their three girls and the boy.

Unfit as Mother

Early in 1986 the city found her unfit as a mother and placed the children in foster care. That summer, when a new foster home was needed, social workers approached Taylor. He agreed to take his girls, and the boy as well.

On July 22, 1986, the children were placed in his temporary custody, and a permanent custody hearing was set for September.

But Kenny did not live that long.

The city had placed the children in a difficult situation. Taylor had his own apartment, but he and his wards lived most of the time with his girlfriend, Patricia Salley, and her two children in her room in a Brooklyn welfare hotel. The bathroom doubled as a kitchen. Three of the children slept on the floor.

On July 31, a social worker visited to investigate an allegation that one of Salley's girls, Thea, 14, was being abused. Before the worker arrived, Taylor and Salley made sure Thea, Kenny and most of the other children were not home, prosecutors later charged.

The social worker did not substantiate the report of abuse, and left the children to remain with Taylor and Salley. In court 11 months later, Thea testified that Taylor had been beating and sexually abusing her regularly.

Earlier Chance Missed

Earlier, there was another missed chance to intervene. In March, according to prosecutors and Thea, a complaint by her aunt prompted her school's assistant principal to call her in for an examination. The girl said bruises on her leg came from a fall.

"Why did you say that?" prosecutor Daniel Saunders later asked Thea in court.

"Because I didn't want them to laugh at me because I got a beating."

There is no indication in the trial record whether the assistant principal at Mark Hopkins Junior High School, Dorothy Straker, reported the case to the state's child-abuse hot line, as is required when abuse is suspected.

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