Mother guilty in death

Date: 1999-04-09

By Marc Barnes Staff writer

On the Fourth of July two years ago, Eddiesenior McLauchlin called an ambulance to her home on Einstein Drive.

Paramedics found her adopted son, 4-year-old Cory, severely beaten. There were burns on both hands, bruises on his back, stomach and legs and a large knot on his forehead.

They took Cory to a hospital, where he was declared brain-dead and died that day.

Cumberland County sheriff’s investigators charged McLauchlin with first-degree murder and felony child abuse.

On Thursday, McLauchlin, who is 47, pleaded guilty to felony child abuse and the lesser charge of second-degree murder.

McLauchlin did not speak, except to answer questions on her plea sheet. Judge E. Lynn Johnson sentenced her to between 7.8 years and 10.16 years in prison, to be followed by five years of probation.

Cory’s case has prompted a change in state law in the way social workers review abuse and neglect cases.

Cory’s foster family, which has sued the Cumberland County Department of Social Services on his behalf, maintain the case shows how profoundly the entire system, from social workers to court officials, has failed children in the county.

Social Services removed Cory’s 8-year-old brother, Michael, from the home after he told a teacher that his mother forced him to drink rubbing alcohol. Cory was left to live with McLauchlin.

In court on Thursday, Clara Wright, who was Cory’s foster mother, recalled how she let herself be convinced that it would be better for Cory to be adopted by a black family, even though she and her husband wanted to adopt him. Cory lived with the Wrights for the first two years of his life. Mrs. Wright, who is white, said she realizes her decision was wrong.

After Cory’s death, a state review team looked at Social Services’ files on both boys. The team concluded that several agencies failed to provide a safety net for Cory; and described Social Services, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department and Fort Bragg’s Criminal Investigation Division as lacking in appropriate responses.

The case was the impetus for “Cory’s Law,’’ a provision passed by lawmakers in August 1997 that requires social workers to check on the welfare of other children in a home where a child has been removed because of abuse or neglect.

The lawsuit against Social Services seeks money for Cory’s brothers and sisters. Officials say the lawsuit will go to trial in December.

E.C. ‘‘Chip’’ Modlin, the director of Social Services, declined to comment while the lawsuit is pending.

After the hearing, Thomas Wright, who was Cory’s foster father, said the case boils down to priorities.

“Cory was a helpless, defenseless baby,’’ he said. “If she had murdered an armed, trained law enforcement officer, the DA would have demanded the death penalty and she would have gotten at least a life sentence. Because it was a child involved, it doesn’t matter as much.’’

Mrs. Wright said that although McLauchlin’s family came to support her during the hearing, no one from her family came to support Cory.

Mrs. Wright said she fears what McLauchlin will do to her surviving adoptive son when she goes on probation.

That prompted an angry response from Vera Gibson, McLauchlin’s sister. “She was a good mother and she loved Cory,’’ Gibson said, her voice rising. “We did. We loved him like he was our own.’’

After the hearing, McLauchlin’s family members indicated through their lawyer, Gerald Beaver, that they would have no comment.

Beaver said the guilty plea marks the first time anyone has accepted responsibility for Cory’s death.

He said the case is an example of a good person who did a bad thing because of a mental illness.

“This would not have happened except for her psychological difficulties,’’ Beaver said. “It doesn’t excuse it, but it sure mitigates it. She is an educated, gentle woman with a keen sense of humor, a loving and devoted family and no prior history of any type of violent behavior.’’

Evidence indicated that McLauchlin’s illness was not serious enough to justify an insanity plea or to keep her from standing trial, but it did lessen her blame. And under the law, it justified a shorter sentence.

Fayetteville Psychologist Thomas Harbin said McLauchlin suffers from paranoid and schizotypical personality disorders, with traits of obsessive compulsiveness.

Assistant District Attorney Rita Cox said evidence of the illness arose during a search of McLauchlin’s home. There, detectives found two documents, one in the form of a contract between McLauchlin and her son Michael.

The contract amounts to a long list in which Michael promises not to rub his eyes, scratch himself, tear holes in his clothes, write incorrect words or enter rooms or kitchen cabinets without permission.

The list shifts over to Mrs. McLauchlin saying Michael had destroyed her “Bible cover” and that he would replace it when he is older, no matter where he is living.

The contract also details, military-style, how Michael has promised to pay for destroying furniture, jewelry and shoes.

The second document was written by Michael. It is titled, “Things Michael Destroyed” and lists furniture, a cabinet and a car and the prices of each. It includes promises that he would not play outdoors, watch movies or play with toys.

Marena Groll, who was Cory’s foster sister, said the different versions that came out in court struck her as unusual. She recalled discussions of how it wasn’t McLaughlin’s fault because of mental illness, then of how it was Social Services’ fault for failing to act soon enough.

“Nobody said to let Cory have his day in court,’’ she said. “No one will look at this case, because they want to dispose of the case, check the block, let’s make a deal. It’s a child.’’

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