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Police say teacher hit, starved son


Police say teacher hit, starved son

The adopted 4-year-old boy's mother is a former state social worker and Dallas police officer

March 9, 2001

Timothy O'Hara

Sarasota Herald Tribune

Detectives suspect that a Bradenton teacher and former social worker beat her 4-year-old son with a bat and secretly tortured him, leaving his body rail thin and broken.

Wanda Bennett, a special education teacher at Harllee Middle School, beat the adopted boy regularly with shoes to punish him and tied him up with old socks to keep him from eating, according to a detailed, three-page Bradenton police report.

Police went to the school Thursday and arrested Bennett on charges of aggravated child abuse and child neglect.

The 40-year-old single mother of four adopted boys worked for the Department of Children and Families in Manatee County and in Tampa in the late 1990s. She was a police officer for the Dallas Police Department from 1987 to 1995.

The child abuse investigation began Feb. 20, after Bennett dropped the boy off at a day-care center with cuts on his face and neck.

The boy was "going in and out of consciousness," and a day-care worker called for an ambulance, which took him to Manatee Memorial Hospital, the arrest report says.

The child was later taken to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. Doctors found six recent bone fractures and marks on the child's back that appear to be from beatings.

They also found cigarette burns on his back.

The boy told doctors that his mother tied him up with socks when she left the house so he couldn't eat her food, the report says.

Doctors examining the boy's partially healed wounds determined that his right shoulder was fractured in late December. A week or two later, bones in both his hands were cracked. Around Jan. 12, 10 days before he was taken to the hospital, his left index finger was fractured.

Neighbors in Bennett's small west Bradenton neighborhood remarked that all her children, ranging in age from 2 to 10, looked skinny. Neighbor Tom Westberry brought the children smoked mullet and other fresh fish he brought back from weekend fishing trips.

"They always looked kind of scrawny, but that is about it," said Westberry, who mowed Bennett's lawn several times. "I never heard anything or saw anything that would make me think something really bad was going on."

Bennett's son, who weighed 35 pounds when he was taken to the hospital, spent days recovering from malnourishment and other problems doctors say were probably the result of abuse.

The skin on the boy's groin and buttocks were covered in a rash, which could have been the result of being forced to wear clothing that he had urinated on, doctors told police.

Day-care employees told investigators that they had suspected abuse for weeks and even questioned Bennett about it. The boy showed up with new wounds almost every week, but Bennett always had a believable excuse, day-care workers told police.

Bennett didn't care if her son spent the day in soiled clothes. She encouraged day-care workers not to allow him to change clothes when he wet himself, they said.

The child came to the day-care center several times with swollen hands and feet, the day-care owner told detectives. Bennett also told day-care workers to punish the child for bad behavior by taking away food, the report says.

The boy told a nurse at All Children's Hospital that his "mommy is mean" and said he did not want to go home because "she spanks me and hurts me when I'm upset," the report says.

Westberry and his wife were surprised by the news of their neighbor's arrest when reached Thursday night. Detectives had never come by to question them, but they did notice police cars parked at her home recently.

For a little more than a year, Bennett has lived in a small, blue cinder block home in the 2900 block of Ninth Avenue West.

"They used to play a lot in the back yard," Westberry said. "Now I never hear them. They are really quiet."

Authorities have placed Bennett's children in local shelters. Detectives also are investigating allegations of violence against her other children, and other charges are pending, Bradenton police spokesman Randy Petroskey said.

Detectives have not received complaints that Bennett abused any of her students, Petroskey said.

"It's going to be an emotionally tough case," Petroskey said. "She is a mother and teacher."

The boy was taken from his biological mother because of neglectful parenting. His mother was constantly homeless and had a problem with anger management, officials said.

Bennett became the boy's legal guardian in August 1999. The boy's biological brother was placed with her a year later.

Several of her children have scars from what a doctor said might be child abuse, but it is unclear how old the scars are or if they were inflicted before she had custody of the children.

2001 Mar 9