Littlest victims: Kate Belus still feels pain of neglect decades after abuse by parents
Belus says transition difficult for victims
By Sarah Rafique
Christine Dodson shook her daughter awake.
She told the 11-year-old she had to watch the other kids.
Her youngest brother was not breathing.
“I came downstairs (and) in the foyer on the ground, my step-dad was doing CPR on him and didn’t wait for an ambulance,” said Kate Belus, 31, who now lives in Lubbock. “They packed up and went straight to the hospital.”
A combination of trying to “beat the demon” out of him and lack of nourishment led to gangrene and, after several attempts of resuscitation, Belus’ adopted brother fell into a coma. While at Brackenridge Children’s Hospital in Austin, doctors conducted skin grafts to help his skin repair. They waited for the 5-year-old boy to wake.
It took several months.
Belus’ mom and step-dad, Richard Dodson, were tried in 1996 for the abuse they caused him. They were never charged for the abuse Belus said she and her other siblings endured.
The Dodsons are serving 45-year sentences each.
Investigating child abuse
CPS investigations were common during the nearly 12 years Belus spent in the Dodson’s suburban home in Round Rock.
At one point, Belus’ adopted sister was removed from her parents’ care for six weeks after breaking her arms and legs multiple times.
“They put her back and they said the investigation was fine,” Belus said.
A year later, CPS investigators would learn things were not fine.
As the investigation progressed, her parents continued their routine of hiding the abuse.
A few months into it, though, Belus said her life was turned even more upside-down than what it already was.
“My brother was in the home when they came and arrested my biological mom and my step-dad and me and my sister were out with friends of the family,” she said.
“When we came back, it was scary. It was so scary because I come back and they were driving up and down my street and there are cop cars and other cars and just people all over.”
Homeschooled and sheltered from the outside world, Belus didn’t know what was going on. She didn’t know it was even a possibility for police to arrest her parents.
“My two adopted siblings had already been removed from the home and my adopted brother was in Brackenridge hospital and had been for a few months,” Belus said. “It was just us three (other kids) that were left in the home. We were there for about two months before they removed us.”
Child Protective Services can only start investigating allegations of physical, mental, sexual and other types of child abuse if a report has been filed with the state, said Crystal Cash, an investigator with CPS in Lubbock County.
During surprise visits, Cash said, investigators determine if the child’s basic needs are being met as far as food, clothing and shelter. She also looks at family history, if there’s any drug paraphernalia in the home and if the children have unusual physical trauma or are making outcries.
“We make unannounced visits, so usually the family doesn’t know that we’re even coming when we make our first initial contact,” Cash said. “That’s always the ideal situation that we can make contact without them knowing that we’re coming. Unfortunately it doesn’t happen like that all the time, so we rely on what the child is saying.”
During CPS visits to Belus’ home, though, she was too scared to speak.
Child victims’ testimony
While CPS has different goals than a prosecutor in a child abuse case, Lubbock County prosecutor Barron Slack said the two can work in tandem to make sure children are out of harm’s way.
“CPS has different standards and different goals. They’re all about getting the kid,” Slack said. “We’re about prosecuting the offender.”
In order to prosecute a case, Slack said there needs to be probable cause, which often includes enough evidence to go to court.
Once in court, Slack said, the law applies just as it would in any other case. The defendant can exercise a right to a jury trial or take a plea deal.
“(If) he won’t take a guilty plea, we’re going to go to trial and I have to call the victim,” Slack said. “The victim has to testify and be cross-examined. There’s really no way to avoid it, even on little kids.”
The Dodsons were offered a deal to not be tried on child abuse charges for their other children if they pleaded guilty to abusing Belus’ adopted brother. They took the deal.
But, not before Belus had to testify.
The prosecution didn’t ask her any questions. The defense asked three.
“Do you love your mom and dad?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Do you think your mom and dad are good parents?”
“Do you want to go back home and live with your mom and dad?”
Looking back, Belus said she’s angry about her simple one-word responses.
“I was so scared. I was scared that if I said anything different and they got off — I didn’t’ know what else to say,” Belus said. “At the time, I think I loved them, you know. I didn’t really know a whole lot differently. At the time I think I thought to a degree they were good parents. But as far as did I want to go back? No. I didn’t want to go back.”
Life after abuse
As the trial continued Belus slowly learned what it meant to be a child after moving in with her aunt, including watching her first Disney movie and playing with toys.
“I had maybe been there a few weeks and she asked me if I wanted a Popsicle and I said, ‘Yes,’” Belus recalled. “Then she asked me one of the strangest questions I had ever heard up until that point. She asked me what color I wanted. I didn’t know. I didn’t know I had a choice. I was never given a simple choice like that.”
Belus only stayed with her aunt for four months before entering foster care, but while there she experienced her first Thanksgiving and Christmas filled with lighthearted fun and laughter instead of sitting down in a controlled manner and opening gifts that she would never play with.
“Seeing their day-to-day made me feel weird because I didn’t really understand it. I liked it, but I didn’t understand it,” Belus said. “It was different. It was a good different.”
Belus moved at least five times her sixth-grade year. But, when she arrived at her last foster parent’s place, she finally felt like a person again.
“They did a lot — especially in those first few years that I was in foster care — about my self-esteem and showing that I was worth something, that I had a purpose,” Belus said. “They stayed up with me nights when I couldn’t do anything but cry all night long. They were there when I needed them and they are very much appreciated for that.”
Reliving the pain
Belus spent her first year with her foster parents convincing them she was OK. Her half-siblings did the same.
“I was terrified,” Belus said. “I was scared (Christine and Richard Dodson) were going to get us back.”
But after going to trial and losing all rights to their five children, Belus finally broke her silence.
She encouraged her half-siblings to do the same.
“I feel like that’s kind of how it happened,” Belus said. “They weren’t saying anything until I said something and as soon as I broke, as soon as I told them I had told. I said, ‘It’s OK’ and they started.”
Belus said the conversation was heartbreaking.
“It was hard going back a year and remembering all those things that had happened and had taken place,” she said said. “I felt betrayed, not by them obviously but by my birth mom and step-dad. With my brother and sister, it was just sorrow, just a heavy, heavy heart. Just wanting to comfort them and being able to actually be there to comfort them.
“My sister just kept saying that she just wants to go home, that she just wants us to be a family again, and I kept telling her that that wasn’t going to happen, that’s not the right choice, we are home now.”
Even though she was at her new home, Belus didn’t want to be adopted when she entered foster care exactly two weeks before her 12th birthday.
“I was going through so much that I couldn’t even think of myself calling somebody else mom and dad,” Belus said. “Then I met (my foster parents) and I lived with them and I bonded with them and I started calling them mom and dad. They started calling me daughter.”
Eventually, her foster parents asked her if she’d ever want to be adopted.
She said yes, but only by them. So, her foster parents entertained the idea of adopting her, but eventually changed their minds.
“It’s one thing to be born into a family and it’s one thing to say that you’ve been chosen to be accepted into this family, and to be told that you’re accepted into this family by choice, and then have that not come about,” Belus said. “That’s hard. That’s a conscious decision.”
Even though Belus escaped the physical and mental abuse, she felt abandoned all over again.
“I’m still trying to get over it because it feels like two sets of parents pretty much walked out, and that hurts,” Belus said. “It makes me feel like I’m not worth a whole lot if two sets of parents don’t want me. It was very hurtful.”
Waiting for closure
As Belus adjusted to life after abuse, the Dodsons wrote her letters from jail. Belus’ aunt held onto the letters until she turned 18 and, for a long time, she didn’t want to know what was in them.
A few years later when her abusive parents tracked her down from prison, letters started arriving at her foster parents’ home. They were begging her foster parents to make her visit them in prison.
She didn’t visit them, but she relented and read the letters. And with each one, her anger grew.
They proclaimed their innocence.
They said they loved her, that they’ll always be a family. Her mom told Belus she’s only on this planet because of her, so she owes her a visit.
Belus didn’t want to hear any of that. What she wanted was an apology for trauma she endured at their hands.
“I wanted them to show some remorse, and it’s just not there,” Belus said.
She’s written them back twice, telling them to leave her alone, but they still manage to track her down.
“They continually every single month write (me) a letter claiming that they’re innocent and that I’ve been brainwashed by the state,” Belus said. “It just makes me mad. They make it seem like being 11 almost 12 years old, that I really didn’t know anything and that I was stupid. That what I saw didn’t really happen and what I felt didn’t really happen.”