Mass. toddler survives abuse, has lingering woes
HYANNIS, Mass.—The girl wore pink and white sneakers, fastened with Velcro tight to tiny feet that love to run.
About 3-feet tall with inquisitive brown eyes and a desire to explore, she's a 2-year-old rugrat in the fullest sense of the word.
At first opportunity she bolted down a Barnstable sidewalk on an unseasonably warm spring day. She shrieked with delight, her light brown hair bouncing as she toddled away from her young mother. After 10 or 12 flurried steps, though, the girl fell hard -- face first -- the way only a little kid can.
The tears flowed as mommy kissed the scratches and hauled the youngster back to the car. The girl was over it soon though -- the smile back on her face. She's been through worse. Much worse.
On a fall night in 2009, emergency workers were called to a Harwich apartment after the girl -- then 3 months old -- stopped breathing. She was taken to Cape Cod Hospital where doctors found a cracked rib during a routine X-ray. Additional scans revealed another break, then another.
She was taken to Boston where doctors found the rest -- nine snapped ribs, two broken femurs, two broken arms and a cracked tibia -- 32 breaks in total, scattered across her 24-inch frame. It was the result of repeated abuse from her father.
"(Doctors) told me they didn't know how she survived," her mother said. "DCF (the Department of Children and Families) said it was the worst case of child abuse they'd seen in 10 years."
The girl's father spent 12 months in prison after admitting to abusing his daughter. While her physical injuries, miraculously, have healed, the emotional scars could last a lifetime. With the help of her mother and a family support system, the little girl is recovering slowly from the psychological toll.
In October 2010, Lamar Hicks, 23, of West Yarmouth pleaded guilty to assault and battery on a child with injury, assault and battery and violating an abuse protection order filed by the girl's mother.
He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison by Barnstable Superior Court Judge Gary Nickerson but served one year. He was placed on probation as a condition of his plea agreement and is now being held on $10,000 bail after several alleged probation violations earlier this year.
The girl and her mother are not being named because the Times does not identify victims of crimes.
Today, the girl has no contact with her father and is too young to consciously remember him or what he did to her. Certain unseen scars remain, though.
She'll lick walls and scratch herself. She's had problems pronouncing words and can act out in social situations. It's the result of psychological trauma, experts say.
Two years after that horrific November night, the family is focused on the future. The girl has seen a child psychologist and trauma specialists, but both met with limited success because of her age. But the girl will turn 3 in June and enter preschool in the fall.
It's the first step in her recovery marathon. It's a process that could take years, but the family is ready for the long haul.
"We just want (the girl) to be happy and healthy, and thank God she's alive. It could have been a lot worse, and it came close to being a lot worse," her grandmother said. "We just take what we can get."
Nov. 14, 2009, was a relatively warm and clear fall day in Harwich.
But shortly after 5:30 p.m., the wail of sirens cut through the light evening breeze as emergency workers responded to Hicks' and the mother's apartment after a frantic 911 call that the child had stopped breathing, according to a police report and the mother.
"We got home one night and she was in her car seat and she just had this look on her face and her face got kind of red, and I thought she stopped breathing," the mother said.
The girl was taken to Cape Cod Hospital, and that's where doctors found a broken rib. They thought it was from the CPR. Another X-ray revealed more broken ribs. Then leg fractures. Doctors determined that she needed to see specialists not available at Cape Cod Hospital, according to medical documents provided by the family.
"I was in shock; I didn't know what to believe," her mother said. "I didn't know. I had no idea, I didn't know what happened at that moment."
The next day, Nov. 15, the girl was taken by ambulance to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The hospital has a specialized team that deals with suspected cases of child abuse.
It took dozens of tests to determine the extent of the girl's injuries.
"They X-rayed her from her head to her toes," her grandmother said.
A day later, doctors had a final count of her injuries. Of the 32 total bones broken, several had multiple fractures, including her femurs, tibia and forearm bones. The injuries to her legs were caused by a pulling or twisting motion and were classified as classic metaphyseal lesions -- a condition almost exclusive to child abuse.
"They said it was severe child abuse -- he squeezed her, he threw her, he dropped her; anything you can think of to cause that is what he did," the mother said.
"That's a pretty horrible number," said Dr. Alice Newton, medical director for the child protection program at Children's Hospital in Boston. "Quite often when infants are abused, we see fewer fractures. Even one or two fractures in a child this age is concerning for abuse."
Newton didn't treat the girl, but spoke generally about injuries to infants.
A child's bones are easier to break because they're smaller, but they're also more flexible, which adds a certain degree of protection, she said.
Because of that and an infant's lack of mobility, accidental breaks are rare, but there are several signature injuries doctors look for.
Cracked ribs can indicate a child was squeezed too hard, said Dr. Robert Sege, a professor of pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and medical director of the child safety team at the hospital. "Three months is a very vulnerable period for babies: They cry a lot, they don't sleep, and they're still growing," Sege said.
Even then, the physical healing process for infants is much shorter than for adults, sometimes lasting just a few weeks, Newton said.
"Babies are remarkable," Newton said. "Their bones take on the same shape as they had before. It's a remarkable healing process."
It was a bright spring afternoon at the grandmother's home on the Outer Cape. The girl -- dressed in blue jeans and a white shirt with a cartoon mouse on it -- bounced around the living room as usual.
She played with her toy kitchen, "making" chicken -- her favorite -- and coffee for her mom. Then, with the attention span of a 2-year-old, she was on to another activity. This time she pushed a miniature green car along a window frame while looking out the window.
She suddenly whipped around and glared, startled by the click from a photographer's camera. She hates being snuck up on, her mother said.
It's one of several psychological problems the girl has been battling since the incident.
The first was night terrors, which started when she was 8 months old. Others have emerged as she gets older.
The girl doesn't know how to soothe herself, according to the family. Instead, she hits herself, pulls her hair and bites herself. She will lick the walls, bang her head off things and scratch herself. She even once tried to pull her eyelids off.
She also has a speech problem. Sometimes she can't articulate words, and they come out scrambled.
Words like "Tinkerbell" and "grandma" instead come out as "Tonka-beel" and "shay-mah."
Both sound like cute baby talk, but are evidence of a speech impediment that her family fears will only worsen with age.
When a child is subjected to trauma this young, the psychological effects can vary greatly. Because he or she is so young, the child won't remember the incident in a conscious way, said Margaret Blaustein, director of training and education at the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute. The center treats victims of trauma from across the state.
Blaustein has had no experience with the girl in this case but spoke on general terms about psychological trauma in very young children.
"At an early age, infants are learning the very basic tasks of learning the world around them and a traumatic experience can influence that," she said. "Their body will often hold an imprint of the experience."
At a hearing last month, Lamar Hicks slouched in the gallery in Barnstable Superior Court. Wearing low-hanging jeans and a dark T-shirt, Hicks occasionally tapped messages on his cellphone as he waited for the judge to call his probation case.
He was there for a number of alleged probation violations, including failure to attend the Cape and Islands Batterers Program -- as mandated in his plea agreement -- and for testing positive for cocaine, oxycodone and marijuana in two separate drug screenings during a five-day period in February. He also had unsupervised contact with another minor child a day before the hearing, according to court documents.
Following a brief presentation of evidence from a probation worker, Judge Robert C. Rufo found Hicks in violation and ordered him held on $10,000 bail.
Hicks' attorney Thomas Yonce didn't respond to multiple phone messages for this article.
It's Hicks' first dustup with law enforcement since Harwich police arrived at his home in November 2009 days after the girl was brought to the hospital.
Doctors in Boston continued to find fractures in his daughter when Harwich police Detective Sgt. Dave Jacek and DCF investigators conducted the first interview.
Hicks denied hurting the girl, according to police reports.
He offered excuses, but they appeared paper-thin to the veteran investigators. "When you're looking at a little baby with 32 broken bones, there's not any other way this could have happened," Jacek said. "This is more than an `Oops, I rolled over on her' break."
Hicks was indicted in July 2010 and agreed to a plea bargain months later, according to court documents. He was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in jail, with one to serve and three years of probation. He was to have no contact with the victim after his release.
The maximum penalty for assault and battery on a child with substantial injury is 15 years in prison, according to state law.
Hicks' 2 1/2-year sentence was less than that, but because the victim couldn't testify and there was no forensic evidence linking him to the injuries, convicting him could have been a challenge, said Cape and Islands Assistant District Attorney Lisa Edmonds, who prosecuted the case.
"Oftentimes, we're not necessarily happy about the outcome, but when you're faced with a case with limited evidence, it's difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt," Edmonds said.
Since the incident, Hicks has had no contact with the girl and limited interaction with the mother, according to the family.
He's sporadically reached out -- including dropping off roses at the mother's work on Mother's Day 2010 -- but nothing substantial, they said.
The family understands that the girl will someday be owed an explanation about why she feels the way she does. From there, it will be up to her whether she wants to meet her father, they said.
He's never offered an apology for what happened and the girl's mother isn't sure it would make a difference. "I know he wouldn't mean it," the mother said. "(The abuse) happened over months and he never said anything at all."
In the living room the of the grandmother's house, the girl's mother and grandmother watched as the child ate a small bowl of Cheerios in front of the TV. The cereal is gone within minutes -- half in her mouth, half on the floor -- before she was back to buzzing around the room. The girl is scheduled to start preschool in Wellfleet in September. They're encouraged by the girl's gusto to learn and interact with other children. "I wanna go to skooo," the girl will repeat over and over when the topic is brought up.
The road to recovery for a child depends on a number of factors, but the most important is his or her support system at home, Blaustein said.
"The capacity to make relationships and feel safe in the body will depend on his or her experience afterward," she said.
A way to encourage this is for therapists to treat the abused child's family -- to "support his or her support system," she said.
For the family, this means several things.
They began seeking a trauma specialist early on, but it wasn't easy. They saw child psychologists and trauma specialists, but none worked well for the girl.
"What we ran into was finding a therapist to see her was virtually impossible because she (the girl) was so young," the grandmother said.
But after months of going it alone, the family has decided to give it another try.
Next week, a specialist from the Massachusetts Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children is scheduled to meet with the family. Based on their experiences, the family is cautiously optimistic about the outcome.
It's unknown what symptoms the girl will develop as she gets older. The concern is that she won't be able to grow up normally, to lead a normal life.
But as the girl pranced around the kitchen table, her bare feet slapping off the tile floor, those worries seemed far away.
"The important thing is how happy she is now," her grandmother said. "She's a lucky little girl."