The faces of child abuse victims, often bruised and bloodied, leave a lasting impression. These are children, after all, virtually helpless against adults--most often their own parents or guardians--who for whatever reason commit violence against them.
Recently, two local cases have brought new attention to the problem of child abuse. In January, San Diego police arrested Henri Mathis Dyson and her son, Harold Alexander Dyson, after reports that children were being abused at their foster home in Mira Mesa.
Police learned of the case when an infant under the care of the Dysons--who have pleaded innocent--was taken, near death, to a local hospital.
Just this week, photographs of twin boys, age 2--the county’s latest known victims--were shown on television in an effort to apprehend whoever abandoned them in a Del Mar hotel.
Mary Stables, a San Diego County sheriff’s deputy, said the boys suffered “deep bruises from hand imprints on their faces like they were shoved, cuts on their necks and cigarette burns on their stomachs and sides.” She said both boys had been sexually abused.
If such stories and pictures are horrifying to the average person, to parents who can’t fathom such crimes happening to any child, much less their own, what about the people who investigate and treat abuse cases? How do they deal with the rage and grief that such cases breed?
“I go home each night and say, ‘Wow, this case tops all the others,’ ” said Versie Auzenne, 34, a registered nurse who has worked five years in the Center for Child Protection at Children’s Hospital. “But there’s always another one to top that one. They seem to get worse instead of better. . . . And they just keep coming.”
“The most difficult cases you deal with are the deaths,” said Dan Dennis, who investigates child abuse cases as a detective for the San Diego Police Department. “There’s a lot of stress, a lot of hidden stress that creeps up on you later, in dreams and so forth. Your mind’s set on the investigation, going 50 directions at once, making sure everything’s right.
“You get away from it for a while, all of a sudden you think you’re relaxing, and then you just feel . . . real tired. Brain drain has set in. It’s hard to get up and do it again.”
Rick Carlson, who works with Dennis in the same unit, said most police officers working the child abuse beat can do it for two years--no more.
“It’s two to three years max,” he said. “Me, I’ve been in it for a little over a year, and I’ll work in it another year or so, but no more. After a while, you’re like a sponge. You’re saturated. With each new case,
you say to yourself, ‘OK, I’ve had enough. I don’t care to see another hurt kid.’ But somehow you summon the motivation to do one more.”
Carlson said most of the children he sees are 3 to 8 years old and that burn victims upset him the most.
“The worst are the ones where a child has been submerged in hot water as punishment,” he said. “It’s hard to believe anyone would do that to a child. Most of the people who work in this (14-detective) unit are parents. These cases always stimulate your emotions.”
Carlson said the job is so tough that at times investigators walk out of interviews between social workers and victims when the talk gets too rough.
Giving ‘Yourself a Breather’
“A detective sitting in on the interview will just lay down his pen and walk out,” Carlson said. “He’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t take it anymore.’ And that’s good. You just have to give yourself a breather sometimes.”
Carlson and Dennis recently spent 2 1/2 months investigating allegations of abuse at the Dysons’ Mira Mesa care home for foster children. Police believe that as many as 5 dozen children may have been tortured at the home since the granting of its license six years ago.
Victims, from 17 months to 12 years old, told police they feared for their lives when they were tied to a kitchen post and beaten. They claimed to have been made to sleep on a cold garage floor and inside a bathtub.
Dennis said he’s improved as a listener, especially when a kid is the talker. Nowadays, he said, it’s important not only to gauge the needs of a child but also to ferret out the truth about abuse. He said some of the accused are innocent.
‘You Really Have to Listen’
“You really have to listen to what these kids are saying,” he said. “We had a case the other day where a boy came to school with a black eye. He told the nurse his father got mad at him and slugged him. Well, we found out that wasn’t the truth at all. His older brother threw a toy at him. The dad was a good dad, no wrongdoing.”
Often, though, abuse is present and the consequences are grim.
Dr. David Chadwick has seen plenty of wrongdoing. “I saw a kid last night,” he said, “who will almost certainly die--from deliberate asphyxiation.”
Chadwick is chief medical administrator at the Center for Child Protection at Children’s Hospital, a pediatric specialist who has dealt with abuse cases for 25 years. He said the difficulty of his job comes not just in the “pain” and “outrage” inherent with the territory but with frustrations over the justice system, the very machinery aimed at stopping the abuse.
“A lot of the social workers out on the front lines investigating these cases are music majors, rookies--a lot of ‘em say, ‘Well, it was my first case.’ There shouldn’t be a ‘first case’ for work of this nature,” Chadwick said. “We see abused kids coming back here a second and third time. That shouldn’t be. The amazing thing is, the Department of Social Services in San Diego County is better than 90% of the agencies in the country, and it’s not very good. This is the stuff that drives me crazy.”
Aware of Burnout Rate
Chadwick is aware of the burnout rate among law-enforcement officers and said that isn’t the case at the hospital.
“Law enforcement doesn’t place a high priority on child abuse work as a career objective,” he said. “Burglary and homicide are the high-prestige beats, and that frustrates me too. The San Diego police was one of the first departments in the country to create a special unit. The sheriff (John Duffy) had a good unit, but he dissolved it last January. We’re pretty mad at him about that, needless to say.
“Everybody suffers in this system,” Chadwick said. “If the head of the Department of Social Services went to the County Board of Supervisors and said, ‘I need 50% more funding; I need to stabilize the office,’ do you know what would happen? Next year, he wouldn’t be the head of the department.”
Nurse Versie and Chadwick said the emotional frustrations of child abuse cases are, at times, monumental. So, they let themselves cry if they have to.
“It’s not cool for a cop to cry,” Chadwick said, “and that’s too bad.”
Deciding What to Do
Irene Becker is a social worker who supervises the child abuse hot line (560-2191) for Child Protective Services, a division of the county Department of Social Services.
“For me, one of the toughest things is deciding at the moment of the call what I should do,” she said. “Do I send a social worker out right away? Do I wait a while, a few days? Do I send them out at all? Depending on what I do, a little life may hang in the balance. The iffy cases, the gray cases are the toughest for me. The clear-cut cases are by far the easiest.”
Becker said media coverage has intensified public awareness of the issue. It has also magnified her caseload and made life harder.
“The hardest part of our job is dealing with the numbers--the overwhelming number of people calling in,” she said. “The most discouraging aspect is the incredible rise in referrals over the nine years I’ve been here. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight.”
Becker’s 25-person staff fielded 57,665 “referrals"--calls into the hot line--in 1987. The number soared to 67,223 last year and will undoubtedly rise this year, she said.
“We average about 5,500 calls a month,” she said.
The calls come from schools, hospitals, doctors, nurses, dentists, optometrists, day-care providers, relatives, neighbors--anyone concerned about a specific case to the point of reporting it, even if they can’t be sure of criminal wrongdoing.
Concerned About Numbers
Chadwick is also concerned about numbers. His center averages an outpatient load of about 1,500 children a year. In 1986, he saw 100 kids on an inpatient basis. Last year, the number tripled. He said about 20 kids a year die at the hospital from injuries linked to child abuse.
Chadwick is also frustrated by lawyers, by the nation’s adversarial system of justice. At 62, he said he’s tired of being an expert witness twice a month for prosecutors hoping to convict someone of child abuse. He’s frustrated that they don’t succeed more often.
He said he is also frustrated--and saddened--by changes in society. He said the “loss of the extended family in American life” has probably contributed to the problem.
“Maybe your mother-in-law drives you crazy,” he said. “But, if a mother-in-law is there, in the house, chances are you’re not going to beat the kid. The more we have people in private, isolated situations, the more likely we’ll have abuse. I don’t see it going away anytime soon.”