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Teacher accused of abuse gets jail


Teacher accused of abuse gets jail

Wanda Bennett pleads no contest and is sentenced to five years for neglect.(B SECTION)


May 14, 2002

Sarasota Herald Tribune

BRADENTON -- Prosecutors said they might not have been able to make a case against a teacher accused of abusing her adopted son, despite medical reports showing the 4-year-old had been starved, burned and beaten, so they allowed her to plead to neglect.

Prosecutor Ed Brodsky said he was afraid Wanda Bennett, 41, a former special education teacher and police officer, would blame three other children in her house for abusing Stephen, the youngest.

So rather than take the case to a jury, Brodsky allowed Bennett to plead no contest to charges of child neglect. She was sentenced to five years in prison Monday.

Bennett had faced charges of aggravated child abuse, which carry a 15-year prison sentence. She will get credit for time served in the Manatee County jail since her March 2001 arrest.

At the time of Bennett's arrest, police officers called the abuse case one of the worst they had seen.

The 4-year-old, who weighed 35 pounds, had broken bones in his hands, feet and shoulder. He also had a scab on his head, untreated ringworm, and scratches and scars all over his body, police reports show.

Bennett was accused of burning the boy with cigarettes, beating him with a Wiffle Ball bat and tying him up with socks. She was also accused of punishing him by not feeding him.

Brodsky said he did not pursue the initial abuse charges because Bennett's three other adopted children -- Stephen's 9-year-old brother and two other boys, ages 8 and 10 -- may have also been abusing the boy.

Prosecutors might have had a problem proving who actually abused him, Brodsky said. He didn't believe the three other boys would make good witnesses, he said.

"We weren't able to get a clear picture of what was going on," Brodsky said Monday. "I thought the best way to go with this case was to pursue the medical neglect."

Bennett was arrested after a day-care worker called police. The worker told police Stephen would steal and beg for food while he was at day care, Brodsky said.

"He was smaller than a normal toddler and his belly always stuck out," Brodsky said. "His were parallel to the conditions of a child in Ethiopia."

The day-care worker became alarmed at Stephen's weight and the bruises and scabs he constantly had on his body. The worker asked Bennett to take Stephen to the hospital, and called police after Bennett refused, reports show.

The boy was taken to Manatee Memorial Hospital after police intervened. Doctors there transferred him to All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.

Stephen began living with Bennett in August 1999 and his brother, Anthony, joined him the next year.

Both are from Missouri and had lived with Bennett until just before her arrest in March 2001.

Since Bennett's arrest, the children have been living with a family in Missouri who are in the process of adopting them.

Both boys have grown several inches and gained 10 pounds each, authorities said.

Bennett served as a police officer in Dallas for nearly eight years.

She moved to Florida in 1996, and worked for the state's Department of Children & Families, starting as a child protection investigator. She resigned in December 2000 to take the teaching job at Harllee Middle School, where she taught special education.

Bennett's case led to a major shake-up at Lifelink, the agency that helped facilitate the adoption.

Seven employees at the Bradenton and Sarasota offices have resigned since the boy's abuse was uncovered last year.

Days before Bennett was arrested, Lifelink caseworker Walter Skogland resigned. Skogland was assigned to the Bennett house for more than three years, during which he regularly reported that Stephen and three other boys in her care appeared "happy and healthy."

2002 May 14