WHO'S TO BLAME FOR Joseph's DEATH?
One of six handicapped children adopted by a Liberty County couple, 8-year-old Joseph Beebe was battered to death more than a year and half ago. Exactly what happened and who's responsible remains to be determined in court. But one thing seems sure - someone or something let him down.
A temporary metal stake with a small plaque is the only marker on the grave where 8-year-old Joseph Beebe has been buried for a year and a half. Faded artificial flowers and a blue plaster angel have been left, but nothing permanent marks the spot in Ryan Cemetery, about 35 miles northeast of Houston in Liberty County.
Joseph was battered to death at his home in the small nearby community of Tarkington Prairie. His adoptive parents, Edith and Brian Beebe, and his 19-year-old stepbrother, Justin Martin, await trial in February on multiple charges of injury to a child in connection with his death.
The Beebes, who are free on bond, say they don't know how his injuries occurred.
Joseph was one of six children - all of them handicapped - who were adopted by the Beebes. According to the couple, the children were raised in a deeply religious environment and never mistreated.
But someone mistreated Joseph. After examining his bruised and malnourished body, Jefferson County forensic pathologist Dr. Tommy Brown ruled his death a homicide resulting from "battered child syndrome."
From the moment Joseph was born, he faced tough odds to survive. On July 7, 1991, his mother - unwed and addicted to drugs and alcohol - delivered triplets at Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital in Houston. Three months premature, Joseph, Jacob and Amy weighed less than 2 pounds each. They spent weeks screaming and shaking as they went through drug and alcohol withdrawal. They also were diagnosed with cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome.
As soon as they were strong enough to leave, Harris County Children's Protective Services took custody of them, after the mother refused to enter a drug treatment program and abandoned them at the hospital.
The three went directly into foster care until they were 20 months old, when the Beebes adopted them in 1994.
Handicapped triplets might seem challenge enough to many parents, but the Beebes wanted more.
About four months after Joseph, Jacob and Amy were born, Jared entered life at Ben Taub Hospital in Houston on Nov. 15, 1991. He, too, was born premature, addicted to drugs and diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome and cerebral palsy.
Unlike the triplets, he was not taken into protective custody. After five months in the hospital he was released to his mother.
At 7 months he was found by police during a Houston drug raid. By then bones were protruding from his emaciated body, and he weighed less than 7 pounds. He was lying on a bed covered with feces while roaches crawled over him, authorities said.
Harris County Children's Protective Services took custody when he was hospitalized for malnourishment. They placed him in foster care and sent him to live with the Beebes when he turned 5. The Beebes took him in as a foster child but adopted him shortly afterward.
Jonathan was born in January 1991, the same year as the other four, also in a Houston hospital. An easygoing, affable boy, Jonathan had an enlarged head, spina bifida and a genetic growth disorder that made him a dwarf. The Beebes adopted him through a private agency, Alternative Emotions [sic. Alternatives in Motion] in Humble, shortly after birth.
The final addition to the Beebe household was Abigail, born in a Houston hospital in September 1994, about three years later than the others. Shortly before her birth she suffered a stroke that left her legally blind. Her head also has a slight tremor, and one leg requires a brace.
The Beebes acquired her in 1994 through the same agency that had handled Jonathan. Within a five-year span the couple had expanded their household with six medically impaired children.
After their arrival, the Beebes gave the four boys names that started with "J," while the girls received names beginning with "A." All but Abigail were within months of the same age.
The Beebes received $1,800 per month from Texas Child Protective Services to care for the special needs of the triplets and Jared, but nothing for the two from the private adoption agency. Other expenses for the four were covered by Medicaid, such as health insurance, medical care, diapers and PediaSure, a nutritional drink for children, authorities said.
Edith Beebe began life as Edith Young in the Cleveland area of Liberty County. She graduated as salutatorian of Tarkington High School in 1974. She later married, had three children and divorced.
When she married Brian Beebe in 1988, two of her children were nearly grown, and soon only Justin Martin remained at home. Brian Beebe, 10 years older than Edith, was earning $45,000 a year as an airline shipping manager in Houston when the two wed.
About three years after they married, the Beebes began adopting handicapped children.
"These are deeply religious people who felt it was their calling - that God wanted them to fix babies, throwaway kids that nobody else wanted," said their then-attorney Daniel Bayless. He represented the couple in a hearing after Joseph's death in which the court took custody of the couples' remaining adopted children.
One of the questions raised in the wake of Joseph's death has been the Beebes' qualifications for becoming parents to so many children with so many needs.
The Depelchin Children's Center in Houston evaluated the Beebes and found them qualified to become both foster and adoptive parents for the state. However, officials there would not discuss a home study made of the Beebes.
Texas Child Protective Service officials will say only that the couple had to undergo special training about handicapped children, including a course that taught discipline without spanking.
Barbara Baldovin, a spokesperson for Justice for Children, a child-advocacy group based in Houston, contends the state often appears more concerned with unloading children entrusted to its care than with making sure their needs are met.
John Gatlin, a Texas CPS spokesman at the time of Joseph's death, acknowledges that placing so many children in one home is unusual and "definitely a concern," but he says caseworkers can recall another couple who had successfully taken in five.
"It really has to be a calling," he said. "People have different tolerances for stress."
In state district court in Liberty last March, Edith Beebe spoke in a quiet monotone about the last day of Joseph's life - March 17, 2000. It was the proceeding in which she lost custody of her remaining adopted children.
He was cuddled in her lap as she read him a Bible story, she recalled, when he suddenly quit breathing. Joseph had complained of a stomachache that day after her husband left for work, she told state District Judge Chap Cain.
She acknowledged that she had swatted him lightly three times on the buttocks earlier in the day. She said she occasionally used a shebet, which is a Hebrew word used in the Bible for rod, to punish the children.
But Beebe, who espouses fundamental Christian beliefs, said she resorted to that only after the failure of other discipline methods, such as "time out" or running in place.
Although Joseph was wearing only a diaper, Beebe said she noticed no bruises. She had no explanation for the black and blue marks that blanketed his back, buttocks and legs in photos taken at the hospital after he died.
Perhaps the other children had hurt him, she said, or maybe he had fallen because of his disabilities, or he might have been bruised by toy blocks scattered on the floor where she tried to resuscitate him.
She and her husband, who also testified in the custody proceeding, both swore they were never abusive.
Scott Batson, a former Liberty County protective service caseworker who investigated Joseph's death, got a different impression when he visited the Beebes at their white clapboard home with green shutters on wooded acreage in Liberty County. He went there immediately after Joseph died to question the family - long before the couple was charged with any crime or lost custody of their surviving adopted children.
Batson remembered finding one of the surviving triplets, 8-year-old Jacob, squatting on the floor on his hands and knees. His buttocks were so swollen and bruised that he couldn't sit, Batson said in an interview.
Like the other children, Jacob squirmed and fidgeted and would hardly answer questions at first, Batson said. Then, without warning, the child blurted, "Promise you won't tell?"
From that moment, the caseworker said, a story very different from Edith Beebe's account began to pour out, as it later did from the other triplet, Amy.
Joseph never cried, the children said, even when spanked severely. This angered their mother, they told Batson. They also recalled her anger when Joseph had managed to unlock the screen door she had installed on the small bedroom the triplets and Jared shared.
The four were kept locked in the room without furniture, bedding or toys for days at a time, Batson said. Although they were toilet-trained, Edith Beebe kept these four in diapers, and they slept on stained carpeting that smelled of human waste, he said.
Their daily diet usually consisted of two cans of PediaSure fed through tubes surgically inserted into their stomachs, Batson said. (Two cans could be sufficient nutrition if they were large cans, CPS officials later said). Cases of PediaSure, provided free through Medicaid as a benefit for adopting special-needs children from the state, were found stockpiled at the house. Edith Beebe told caseworkers that the triplets and Jared could not tolerate regular food.
The day they were taken into protective custody, Batson said, they devoured several Happy Meals from McDonald's "like a shark feeding frenzy."
In contrast to the treatment of Jared and the triplets, the two children adopted from the private agency, Abigail and Jonathan, were allowed to eat regular food "at the big table," and both had their own rooms, Batson said.
"Jonathan had a bed, TV, tapes and trucks all over the place," he said, "while Abigail's room was elaborate. She had frilly pink curtains and a comforter, a Fisher-Price kitchen, a poster of two dogs, toys, a TV-VCR with videotapes of Barney and Veggie Tales."
What Batson called the "favored two" also wore nicer clothes, and neighbors often saw them playing outside, while the other four were rarely seen, he said.
Batson theorized that the Beebes may have grown closer to Jonathan and Abigail because they had arrived from a private agency shortly after birth, while the other four were older when they came from the state.
As for what happened to Joseph, his siblings, Amy and Jacob, remember their brother feared he would not survive much longer. He told his father that he "didn't want to die," they told Batson.
A few days later, Joseph was forced to sit in a crib while the other children were treated to Beanee Weenees instead of their usual PediaSure, they said. Authorities are unsure why Joseph was being punished but believe it might have been because he dirtied his diapers, Batson said.
At their mother's direction, they told Batson, they taunted Joseph and called him a "baby" while they ate.
The next day Joseph was allowed to eat whatever he wanted - until his mother became angry again when he wet his pants, they said. Joseph was then beaten repeatedly until he passed out and an ambulance was called, according to the children, Batson said.
Joseph was rushed to a nearby hospital in Cleveland, where he was pronounced dead. Afterward, the children told Batson, their mother told them that God was glad Joseph had died. "He's burning in hell, and you could be next," they quoted her as saying.
An examination of Joseph's body showed that some of his bruises went to the bone, Batson said, and that even his scrotum was blackened. He also was found to be extremely malnourished.
After Batson's home visit and interviews, CPS took temporary custody of all five surviving adopted children, took them to a doctor for examination and placed them in foster care.
Doctors concluded that the three who shared a room with Joseph were also malnourished and had been physically abused for a long time, reports showed.
"Jared, for instance, was bruised from the middle of his back to his ankles," Batson said. "One side of his buttocks was bigger than the other because one side had atrophied. Brain scans detected bleeding from where he had been whacked in the head. He also has calcium deposits on his liver (a possible indication of being struck in the abdomen, doctors said) that may one day make a transplant necessary.
"But he won't qualify," Batson adds, "since he's a special-needs kid."
Amy reported they were spanked not only by their mother but also by their mother's son, Justin, Batson said.
"She called him the `mean boy' who would pick the kids up and throw them into walls," the caseworker said. "She said sometimes during a whipping he would cover their faces to muffle the sound and afterwards show them their own blood."
Justin faces four felony indictments on charges of injury to a child. His mother faces four felony counts on charges that she injured the same children, as well as another four counts for failing to protect the children. Brian Beebe faces four felony counts of injury to a child "through reckless omission," for failing to protect the children.
Before Jared went to the Beebes, Juanza Sanson of The Woodlands was his foster parent. She said she tried to stop Harris County Children's Protective Services from sending him to live with the couple. Sanson, who had raised Jared for five years after the state took custody during the drug raid, described him as a "wonderful little boy" who could do most things that a normal child of his age could do. She had wanted to keep him and fought his going to the Beebes.
"The Beebes had brought the triplets to my home once, and I didn't feel right about it," she said. This was before Jared went to live with the Beebes. "The children seemed too controlled, like zombies."
She noted there were complaints against the Beebes a year before they were permitted to adopt Jared, who was then their foster child, in 1998.
Estella Olguin, Texas CPS regional spokesperson, said a complaint was received from a professional who questioned the need for the children to be tube-fed but the complaint was ruled out after a doctor said the tube was needed because the children were having difficulty swallowing. A second complaint of possible physical abuse was also ruled out, she said.
From 1997 to 1999 the agency received five complaints of possible physical abuse while the Beebes lived in northeast Harris County before moving to Liberty County. Some came from Dunn Elementary School in the Aldine Independent School District, where some of the children attended school before the Beebes began home-schooling them. The children were interviewed but never acknowledged any abuse, and physical abuse was "not substantiated," records showed.
However, Harris County CPS did confirm a neglect complaint in January 1999. In that case the Beebes were cited for spanking their children, although it was not deemed abusive. The agency said physical punishment is inappropriate for special-needs children, and the Beebes promised never to do it again.
The couple were also cited for making four children of elementary-school age sleep in one crib; keeping a cluttered and filthy house; removing some of the children from special programs in the public schools for home-schooling; and using a screen door to lock four of them in their bedroom overnight to keep them from "roaming."
After the family underwent seven months of training to correct the deficiencies, Harris County Children's Protective Services closed the file. The Beebes then moved to Liberty County. A few months later Joseph was dead.
He is not the only Texas child who has died after child-welfare officials received complaints of trouble in the home. Of the 135 Texas children who died of abuse or neglect last year, the state had prior referrals on 62, according to records.
After Joseph's death, the courts terminated the Beebes' parental rights to their remaining adopted children. They are now in foster homes.
Also terminated was the $1,800 monthly income from the state that the Beebes had received for the care of the triplets and Jared.
At the Beebes' request, the courts have declared the couple indigent. Edith Beebe, who was a stay-at-home mom, has gone to work for Wal-Mart.
Brian Beebe had switched jobs and was taking home only half as much ($24,000) as his former airline job paid, court records showed. He stated he was already in debt from legal expenses in the custody proceedings and could not afford any more.
Cleveland attorney Richard Burroughs has been appointed to represent Edith Beebe. Attorney Jerry Andress of Liberty is representing her husband, and Liberty attorney Gary Bunyard has taken the case for her son.
Asked about the case, Andress said, "I have some serious questions. But I think it's too early to comment now."
Burroughs said he also had questions, especially about the medical evidence in the case, and would be asking the court to pay for an independent expert to examine the medical reports.
While Bunyard said he had not yet reviewed all the reams of documentation on the case, he said what he had seen so far of the CPS case against his client seemed to be based on information that was "blown out of proportion and taken out of context."
At a custody hearing for the surviving adopted children, a number of the Beebes' church friends and relatives testified they never witnessed any abuse. In fact, most said they would not hesitate to let the couple baby-sit their own children, describing the Beebes as loving, capable parents.
Angela May, Edith Beebe's daughter from a previous marriage, said the children came with health problems and could inflict life-threatening bodily injury on each other.
A Harris County sheriff's deputy, David Land, who lives across the street from the family in Liberty County, said he never noticed any signs of abuse.
"These people are just too nice. It's hard to believe," he said. "I don't know what to think."
He recalled the Beebes' generosity when his water was mistakenly shut off for a couple of days. "Mrs. Beebe would haul gallons of water to our house each day in a little red wagon and then even cooked us supper," he said.
In the cemetery where Joseph Beebe is buried, caretaker Linda Groce worries that the child's grave might eventually become lost.
It's not easy to locate now, she says. Joseph's name, inked on a small card attached to the metal stake that marks the spot, already has begun to fade.
Groce says she has never seen anybody visit Joseph's grave, but she is determined he won't become a forgotten statistic.
She has started setting aside a little money - if nobody objects - to place a small concrete monument there.