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Child discipline gone awry


Child discipline gone awry

3 cases show trend of punishment taken to extreme

By Geoffrey Fattah
Deseret News staff writer

PROVO — Yanking teeth, force-feeding water and withholding food may sound like torture-chamber tactics, but they are just some of the extreme allegations leveled against three Utah County couples over the past year. The victims: their children.

Although those who deal with child abuse cases are at a loss to explain how three high-profile child abuse cases could come up within a short time span, they do say such punishment-gone-awry cases mark a disturbing trend.

In his 10 years specializing in child abuse investigations, Utah County Sheriff's Lt. Jerry Monson said he had never before seen cases where guardians allegedly went to such bizarre lengths to punish their children.

"One of the new dynamics is this kind of disciplinary abuse," Monson said. "We've always had abuse cases. It's just now there seems to be a new motive."

The death of 4-year-old Cassandra Killpack caught national attention last fall, mainly due to the bizarre nature of the Springville girl's death. Investigators allege Killpack was forced to drink large quantities of water as punishment for earlier taking a soft drink from a sibling.

The massive intake of water caused water intoxication, creating an electrolyte imbalance that led to brain swelling. Killpack later died at Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City.

Prosecutors said an autopsy showed a cut and bruises around the girl's mouth, indicating a cup was forced on her.

Richard and Jennete Killpack, Cassandra's adoptive parents, have been charged with child abuse homicide and child abuse, both third-degree felonies. The couple awaits a preliminary hearing, scheduled for May.

Just weeks after the Killpack case caught nationwide attention, prosecutors in Utah County filed criminal charges against a Saratoga Springs couple for allegedly starving two adopted Russian children.

Teresa and Reed Hansen were charged with two second-degree felony counts of child abuse/neglect and one class A misdemeanor count of child abuse for allegedly withholding food from the children as punishment for bad behavior.

According to investigators, the children, ages 4 and 5, were locked in a bathroom without food or clothing for days at a time. The alleged abuse was reported by a pediatrician in Washington state who specializes in treating adopted Russian children. The children had been taken to him for a checkup.

The doctor was so disturbed at the children's malnourished condition that he immediately contacted Washington authorities who, in turn, contacted Utah child and family services.

One case that particularly disturbs Utah County law enforcement is the case of a Provo couple accused of abusing their two sons — including allegedly pulling out their teeth as punishment. The abuse also allegedly involved taking pliers to one of the boy's genitals to the point that he required medical attention afterward.

Chay and Shelly Huynh are each charged with two first-degree felony counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child; three second-degree counts of child physical abuse; one count of first-degree sodomy; and one third-degree count of child abuse. Both have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial on the charges.

For Utah County criminal division chief Sherry Ragan, it appears some abusive parents try to reach around the traditional abuse of beating a child. "People know it's wrong to hit a kid, and so they think of different ways. What once was acceptable in years past is a crime now," Ragan said.

"I'm not one to say you can't spank a child or discipline a child to a degree," investigator Monson said. "But I think that these people are crossing the line as far as we're concerned."

While authorities struggle to find a reason behind the shocking allegations, one national expert on child abuse believes they are not likely to find one.

"There's no single answer," said Dr. David Corwin, a nationally recognized expert on the forensics of child abuse who works at Primary Children's Medical Center. "We would all like to know why some of these things happen, but the truth is, they happen for a lot of reasons."

Corwin said familial and cultural influences often play a part with abusive parents. In many cases, the parents were abused themselves as a child. Cultural folk remedies or forms of punishment used on children can be seen as abusive by U.S. standards.

But experts say such tragedies can be prevented by people in the community keeping a vigilant eye for tell-tale signs of abuse.

In the case of Cassandra Killpack, it was hospital staff at Primary Children's Medical Center who contacted police after noticing signs of possible abuse.

In the Huynh case, the two boys confided allegations of abuse to the foster mother after they were removed from their home.

Monson said pediatricians and other medical staff are often the ones who report possible abuse. Teachers and others who deal with children also report abuse.

"In terms of physical abuse, the primary thing is to notice injuries on a child where the child doesn't give an adequate explanation, or if the caregiver doesn't give an adequate explanation," Corwin said.

Signs of malnutrition, failure to grow and develop at a reasonable rate and obvious medical needs that go untreated can also be signs of an abused child.

Although abusive families tend to flourish in social isolation from neighbors and others, Corwin said families who value privacy are not necessarily abusive.

Despite the attention given to the three cases, Monson said the major form of child abuse remains sexual abuse.

E-MAIL: gfattah@desnews.com

© 2002 Deseret News Publishing Company

2002 Dec 30