Community providing stone for grave of starved child

Relates to:
Date: 2008-12-01

Clarion-Ledger, The (Jackson, MS)
By Natalie Chandler natalie.chandler@clarionledger.com

LUDLOW - Artificial floral arrangements, a teddy bear and angel mementos grace Austin James Watkins' tiny grave near the home where he starved to death three weeks ago.

The Scott County community that, perhaps, could have saved him had it known of his plight is helping honor his passing - pitching in to place a headstone on his grave.

The temporary marker bears a photo of Austin's smiling face. The boy died just days short of his fifth birthday.

"A lot of people around here are hurt,"said Mose McBride, a cashier at the only gas station in the rural community on the Leake County line. "It's like, how could anybody do that to a child?"

Many residents say they knew nothing about Austin or his life with his grandmother, aunt and three siblings.

Authorities say the family lived an isolated existence. A dirt road leads to their mobile home - removed from neighbors and not visible from the main road. An unhitched trailer full of mattresses and furniture sits on the property, and children's toys are scattered across the backyard.

There's little reliable information that could help determine a motive for his death. Medical records from a 2007 hospital visit, expected to be released this week, may paint a clearer picture of whether Austin suffered prolonged abuse.

Janice Mowdy, Austin's paternal grandmother, and Stephanie Bell, his aunt, are being held without bond in the Scott County Jail. They have asked for court-appointed attorneys.

"We don't always find a motive," said Scott County Sheriff Mike Lee, adding that boy's aunt and grandmother, charged with murder and felony child abuse, maintain their innocence.

"If anyone knows anything definite about the case, we wish they would contact us," Lee said.

Austin's starvation death may not have been the only one in 2008 in Mississipp. Pike County authorities are looking into whether a 2-year-old died of starvation several months ago.

Sheriff Mark Shepherd said late Friday he suspects starvation could have been a "contributing factor," although he added the case is different from Austin's. He didn't go into detail.

Pike County Coroner Percy Pittman said the child died four or five months ago in the Pleasant Grove community and that his parents are in jail.

It is unclear whether the Mississippi Department of Human Services is involved in the case. Officials could not be reached Friday for comment.

Mowdy and Bell worked as poultry farmers. The family did not attend a nearby church, though a pastor said he had invited the children to summer activities.

Austin's siblings, a 9-, 6- and 2-year-old, are in the care of a foster family while they undergo counseling. Authorities say they do not appear to have suffered the same abuse as Austin.

Sheila Smith, who lived in Ludlow for a summer before moving away, said she thinks the community could have helped save him.

"There should have been someone checking on that child," said Smith, who still works in Ludlow.

Others, like Debra King, insist they would have helped if they had been aware of the situation.

"If I had known the baby was starving, I would have reported it," King said as she washed clothes at the local washeteria. "I didn't even know a house was down there."

"It's sometimes hard to intervene if (children) are isolated,"said Dr. Scott Benton, an associate professor of pediatrics and chief of forensic medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

"Bad things can hide in isolated areas," said Benton, who has worked on child-starvation cases.

Benton is not involved in Austin's case but said he has been asked to review the death in Pike County.

Scott County Coroner Joe Bradford said Austin had bruising. Starvation has been ruled as the cause of his death.

McBride said he remembers the women as regular, though not very talkative, visitors to the gas station. He said he does not remember the children accompanying them.

The women maintain that Austin was sick and they were going to take him to the doctor, Sheriff Lee said. He has said he thinks Austin was malnourished from the time he had been living with his grandmother, and the women were using a false illness to cover up the starvation.

Reliable information from other relatives has been difficult to find, and residents with connections to the family have remained mostly silent.

Relatives' accounts of Austin's abuse, televised in the days after his death, were exaggerated, Lee said. He expects no more arrests, but said the aunt's and grandmother's charges could be upgraded to capital murder.

The owner of Austin's former preschool, who noticed the child looked sick in October, would not comment when contacted by The Clarion-Ledger. The boy's grandmother pulled him and his siblings from the school after the owner started asking questions, Lee said.

A message left with one of the owners of the farm where the women worked, who collected donations for Austin's headstone, has not been returned.

DHSis cooperating in the investigation into Austin's death.

The agency had removed Austin from his mother's care in 2005. His grandmother was granted custody in 2007, and the case was closed.

Lee said that DHSand his office received no reports of abuse after that. DHS will not comment, but a spokeswoman offered an explanation of the agency's role in such cases.

"When DHS receives custody of a child, court intervention and oversight begin immediately and continue throughout the life of the case with court hearings held as often as needed in the specific case," said Lori Woodruff, deputy administrator for Family and Children's Services.

"Dispositional court hearings determine the placement of the child," she said. "This is not an optional activity and is not county-specific but is a procedure followed statewide. The Division of Family and Children's Services staff work in cooperation with the Youth Court judges in each county throughout the state to provide protection to ensure the safety and well-being of children in need of our services."

To comment on this story, call Natalie Chandler at (601) 961-7075.

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