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As a boy suffered, many turned away

Fear and distrust often underlie reluctance to intervene, officials say.

June 21, 2008|Ari B. Bloomekatz, Cara Mia DiMassa and Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writers

In Starkeisha Brown's small circle of South Los Angeles, it was no secret that her 5-year-old son was the victim of abuse.

Friends and family said they suspected that Brown beat the boy -- and a few even witnessed it. They talked among themselves about what to do, and confronted Brown on at least one occasion.

But no one called authorities.

County child-welfare officials didn't find out about his cigarette burns, whip marks and other injuries until a stranger at a Metro Rail Green Line platform called a county hotline earlier this month after the boy told her: "She put my hand on top of the stove."

The boy's plight has sparked widespread outrage, with the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors ordering an investigation into why officials couldn't do more to help him.

But the case has also highlighted what experts say is significant problem: family, friends and neighbors suspecting child abuse but choosing not to report it.

Such problems are particularly present in neighborhoods like the one where the Browns lived, where distrust of police and child-protection workers is high and residents worry that calling authorities could make problems worse.

"I don't think it is that they are colluding with the abuser," said Carole Shauffer, executive director of the Youth Law Center, a San Francisco-based public interest law firm. "For the most part, it's fear of what's going to happen, fear of nothing happening, fear of collateral consequences, and denial, that 'it's none of my business, and it can't be as bad as it seems to me.' "

Authorities allege that Brown's son was subjected to extreme abuse for more than a year, including being malnourished, burned with cigarette butts on his body and genitals, hung from a doorjamb by his wrists and whipped, left to sit in his own urine and feces and severely burned on his hands, which were held to a hot stove. Brown and two other women have been charged with child abuse and torture.

Friends and family said they had suspicions but hoped they were unfounded.

The boy's great-grandmother, Barbara Moreno, said she noticed cuts, scratches and bumps on him, but dropped the subject when he told her the injuries were caused by a fall and a dog attack.

"Sometimes you turn your head," said Vivian Daniels, a family friend who about a month ago finally asked Brown about the bruises and scratches on her son's body. She said she didn't call police or the Department of Children and Family Services because she feared it would make things worse for the boy -- and perhaps even for her and her children.

"It's tit-for-tat," Daniels said. "In South-Central, we don't do that. I'm just telling you how it is."

Daniels said she finally decided to talk to Brown about her suspicions around the time she tried to throw an impromptu party for the boy's 5th birthday.

She wrote his name on a birthday cake and hoped he could celebrate at her house with her daughter, whose birthday was around the same time in May. She went to Brown's apartment to ask if her son could go to the party.

"Hell, nah," Brown replied, according to Daniels.

Around the same time, Daniels said she saw Brown "whip the baby butt naked." She said her 11-year-old daughter, Rayonna, had seen the boy hung from a door by his shirt and forced to eat on his hands and knees "like a dog," she said.

"We had heard that the little boy got messed up," Daniels said.

In response to the case, community activists on Friday canvassed the neighborhood around 110th and Figueroa streets, where Brown recently lived with the boy, with fliers that read: "Break the Silence on Child Abuse in South L.A.! Help Make Sure a Starkeisha Brown Torture Case Never Happens Again."

"We have seen time and time again that people say, 'I've seen child abuse, I've heard it, I've heard screams, but I do nothing,' " said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. "People are so reluctant to speak out on it."

Hutchinson and others said suspicion and fear of authorities runs deep in parts of South L.A. -- and that extends beyond the police to social service agencies and other public providers. They said some people are afraid that calling authorities could end up making the family situation worse -- particularly if the child is taken into foster care. Others fear authorities might end up checking on them.

Hutchinson said residents are reluctant to call authorities in such cases because of a strong belief that it's wrong to interfere in the way other parents treat their children.

They "feel that children, no matter what, are really the province of the mother and everything they do is their right and their business," he said. "Someone hears a child screaming, they're not going to say anything because their thinking is that's their child, that's their business."

It took a stranger -- the person on the Green Line platform -- to finally call the county with a tip.

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