exposing the dark side of adoption
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PEKIN -- More than 18 years after killing her adopted infant daughter, a 44-year-old woman was sentenced Thursday to probation and community service for the crime.

Victoria Neal, who faced a possible prison term, pleaded guilty last October to a count of involuntary manslaughter in the death of 1-year-old Danielle Christine Neal. She admitted she violently shook the child Aug. 30, 1976, while visiting friends in Morton. Danielle Neal died three days later in a Peoria hospital, and her parents returned to their Toledo, Ohio, home.

The death originally was considered an accident, and Neal said at the time the child had fallen in a bathroom. After Neal told a California social service worker that she caused the death, authorities exhumed the infant's remains from Roberts Cemetery in Morton and reopened an inquiry in 1993. A former Tazewell County prosecutor who was involved in the renewed investigation called the case a textbook example of "what could go wrong in a child death case. " Authorities made a series of mistakes, and that enabled Neal to escape prosecution for nearly two decades, said Kirk Schoenbein, now a Logan County assistant state's attorney.

For example, he said, a Tazewell County sheriff's deputy who investigated the child's death in 1976 apparently did not consult medical reports and took Victoria Neal's word about what happened.

"There was no critiquing of her story," Schoenbein said. "There was no thorough in vestigation in the very beginning."

Despite several "red flags" indicating possible child abuse, there was no inquest and no in-depth scrutiny of the death, he said.

"It just illustrates the point that investigations of child deaths due to trauma have to be done very carefully," Schoenbein added. Neal, who lives in California, could have been sentenced to two to five years in prison. Tazewell County Judge Robert Cashen said he decided against a prison term because of the circumstances surrounding the unusual case. He ordered Neal to serve 2 1/2 years of probation, pay a $1,000 fine and perform 300 hours of public service work.

State's Attorney Erik Blanc asked Cashen to send Neal to prison, saying the seriousness of her crime warranted that kind of punishment.

Danielle "was a battered child, battered by this defendant, (and) ultimately battered to death by this defendant," Blanc argued.

Victoria Neal and her then-husband, Glenn, adopted a second infant daughter after Danielle died, Blanc said. That child was removed from the family's custody because she was abused, he said.

Neal's attorney, Thomas Penn Jr., described his client as a gentle and mild-mannered woman who should not go to prison. At the time of Danielle's death, Neal was under a lot of stress because her husband physically and emotionally abused her, Penn said.

Neal lacked parenting skills, lived far from other family members and felt pressured by her husband and the church work they did, Penn said. Neal "has never fully forgiven herself" for Danielle's death, he said.

But she has led an exemplary life for the past 18 years, successfully raising a biological daughter who is now 15, Penn said. The Neals divorced about two years ago, and she is engaged to marry a clinical psychologist, Penn said.

Neal has carried the "emotional baggage" of Danielle's death for many years, said Penn, who read from a letter that his client wrote to the judge.

"It was not my intention to harm her, but now I realize I was venting my anger and frustration on her," Neal wrote.

1995 Jan 13