Many missed signs of boy's abuse

Date: 2001-07-10

Many missed signs of boy's abuse

Case spurs changes at foster care agency, which has had several resignations since February.
HOWARD M. UNGER
Source: Sarasota Herald Tribune
July 10, 2001

Everybody who should have noticed the abuse missed it -- the bruises, broken bones and starvation that Steven lived through.

The owner of the Bradenton boy's day care didn't catch it for months. Nor did the social workers charged with protecting Steven and every other foster and adopted child in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Investigators say 4-year-old Steven was beaten with shoes, burned by cigarettes, and tied up by his mother, Wanda Bennett. They say the abuse went on for at least two months before anyone called the police.

Now, the Herald-Tribune has learned, seven employees at the Bradenton and Sarasota offices of Lifelink Inc. have resigned since Steven's abuse was uncovered in late February.

Days before Bennett was arrested, Lifelink caseworker Walter Skogland resigned from the company, which is contracted to oversee foster and adoptive care programs in Manatee and Sarasota. Skogland was assigned to the Bennett house for more than three years, during which he regularly reported that Steven and three other boys in her care appeared "happy and healthy."

"The stress level was getting too high," Skogland wrote in his letter of resignation. "I needed to move on to other projects."

The Sarasota man, an adoption specialist since 1996, would not comment for this article.

On May 5, two months after Skogland's resignation, Lifelink Director Phil Hedrick announced that he was leaving, saying he'd failed at his job. It followed resignation notices from three other employees, including a family specialist, a family coordinator, and a secretary. It's not clear if they were involved in the Bennett case.

"My reasons for resigning are my lack of abilities to accomplish goals I had set for Lifelink," wrote Hedrick, who did not explain further.

In an interview before departing, he said the Bennett case didn't lead to his resignation.

When Steven was finally taken to the hospital by his day-care provider, he was fading in and out of consciousness. At the hospital, his bruise-covered body weighed 35 pounds and nurses reported finding six recent fractures.

Earlier this month, Bennett told a judge that she wanted to clear her name. Lifelink, one of the first private agencies hired in Florida to oversee adoptions and foster care, also wants to clear its name.

Manatee and Sarasota counties have a private adoption and foster care system run by affiliates of the YMCA. They are paid by the state to manage the agency and, in turn, hire private companies like the Illinois-based Lifelink to perform certain jobs.

On a test basis, the YMCA has been working in Sarasota for nearly three years and in Manatee since February 2000.

The privatization of the Sarasota/Manatee foster care program has been held up as the model for the overhaul of the state-run Department of Children & Families (DCF), which had been criticized for mismanagement and for failing to protect children from abuse.

DCF officials say the YMCA has a better track record than the state's earlier social workers.

But the system isn't perfect.

Questions still remain about how often Skogland visited the Bennett household. Lawyers for Lifelink have refused to turn over documents that log each inspection.

Christopher Card, director of the YMCA, says Skogland visited the Bennett home "at least once a month or every six weeks."

State officials require at least one home visit per month.

But during its first four months serving Manatee and Sarasota, Lifelink apparently was doing less than half of the required, in-home inspections of foster children. The lack of inspections was highlighted in two state audits that examined randomly selected cases more than a year ago to assess how well the YMCA was operating.

DCF officials said they believe social workers were doing enough inspections, just not in the child's home, where problems can be easier to spot.

The YMCA, its director says, has already made changes since Bennett's arrest to make sure social workers use a critical eye during every home inspection.

Card made no excuses for Lifelink's handling of the Bennett case, calling it a "hard lesson." He said he hopes reforms will prevent more people like Bennett from becoming adoptive parents.

He said, however, that Bennett, adoptive mother to two boys and foster parent to two others, used her credentials to fool caseworkers. They believed well-crafted stories about how Steven was injured, he said, because they trusted her.

"That woman was talented at her craft," Card said. "Do you think she wasn't prepared when our guys did case visits?" he asked.

"Too often, there are times when an abuser is able to get away with it; to fool us," he said. He said he takes offense at how Bennett rescheduled home visits and covered up Steven's scars.

"That woman needs to go to jail," he exclaimed. "How dare she do this to that boy!"

Just like detectives for the Bradenton Police Department, he thinks Bennett's credentials fooled people into believing her explanation of wounds on her children.

She was a special education teacher, a former DCF caseworker, and a 14-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department.

It was hard, Card said, to imagine her tying Steven's hands with old socks or beating him with a Wiffle Ball bat, two allegations prosecutors have made against the Bradenton woman.

If convicted on two felony counts of child neglect, she could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.

"We were had," he admitted, echoing the same remarks of Lisa Scott, the Bradenton day-care worker whose boyfriend's Feb. 20 call to paramedics led to Bennett's arrest.

Since the call, Scott said, she won't hesitate calling authorities if she fears a child is being abused at home.

A day-care provider with no record of complaints, she has said that Steven's case was the first time she'd come across a suspected case of abuse.

Staff writer Chris Davis contributed to this report.

CAPTION(S):

Wanda Bennett faces two felony counts of child neglect.

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