Saddest Tragedies of Child Abuse: Preventable Cases

Associated Press

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.

Straker, who retired in June, declined to say in a telephone interview whether she reported the case. When asked that question, she said, "Well, the child said that she wasn't abused."

Apparently no one ever reported Kenny's abuse; perhaps there was no time. In a month with Taylor and Salley, Saunders told the jury, "he was subject to almost daily beatings and abuse with any object that was at hand, with shoes, with a flashlight, with a paddle that was reinforced with tape, with a hairbrush, with a belt, with a bat, with hands and even with feet."

Saunders suggested that Taylor was taking his anger at Gladys Crespo out on her child.

'Stomped on Leg'

On Aug. 18, 1986, Taylor "stomped" on Kenny's leg to punish him for moving when he had been told to lie still, according to testimony from Lydia Taylor, the boy's 9-year-old half-sister. Taylor, a carpenter, is 6-foot-4 and weighs 260 pounds. Lydia said she never saw Kenny walk again.

It was not until three days later, at 12:45 a.m. on Aug. 21, that Taylor and Salley brought Kenny to Coney Island Hospital. The boy was dead.

Coroner Tamara Bloom's report was heart-rending even in its clinical detail. Some of Kenny's bruises were fresh; others, she estimated, were 2 to 5 weeks old. They overlapped, making it impossible to count them all.

Kenny's thigh bone was broken. Blood had accumulated in his spinal canal. He was poisoned by internal bleeding. His blood contained a nearly toxic level of Tylenol, apparently given to him in his final days. His sisters said he had complained of a headache.

There was a gash on his forehead, where the girls said Taylor hit him with a flashlight. He had a broken finger. His liver and lungs were bruised. Called to testify, Bloom said, "I remember this case very well, because it was the worst case of a child with injuries. . . . "

She was cut short by a defense lawyer's objection.

When Thea Salley and Lydia Taylor testified, some jurors cried. After a five-day trial, the panel took six hours to convict Taylor, 26, and Patricia Salley, 29, of second-degree murder and assault. He is serving 27 years to life in prison. She received 17 years to life.

Suzanne Trazoff, spokeswoman for the Human Resources Administration, the city welfare agency, declined to discuss the case, citing confidentiality laws. The foster care worker involved in the children's placement with Taylor, Daniel Rodriguez, also declined to comment.

Details the Same

A Human Resources Administration report providing synopses of the 42 child deaths in 1986 in which the agency had known of abuse allegations does not include names. But one case in almost every detail reflects the life and death of Kenny Crespo.

The report said the social worker who investigated the abuse complaint in that case did not know that the father had recently received custody of the children, but it noted that he had never before been accused of abuse.

It concluded: "The handling of this case was not inappropriate."

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