Macomb tackles its child abuse epidemic
Rash of horrific deadly crimes against young kids spurs action from prosecutor
The Detroit News
February 14, 2011
Mount Clemens— Two 4-year-olds killed by their grandmothers — one drowned in a bathtub, another strangled.
A 3-year-old boy stabbed to death in a brutal attack by his mother's fiance.
A 2-year-old girl sexually assaulted and murdered by her stepmother.
Authorities allege the disturbing scenarios are reality in Macomb County and among at least 10 abusive crimes involving children ages 6 and younger in less than two years.
While overall cases of abuse and neglect in Macomb County aren't going up, Prosecutor Eric Smith said the county is experiencing a spike in the severity of its child abuse cases and child deaths nearly tripled in 2010. The annual average of up to two child deaths per year jumped to five.
Macomb's troubles appear to be unique: Officials in Wayne and Oakland counties haven't seen a significant increase in child deaths. In fact, both report a slight decrease from 2009 to 2010.
Smith says it's a "mini-epidemic" in Macomb that he's aiming to fight. Smith's office recently launched an effort to make child abuse prevention a priority. The prosecutor said staffers are working to assemble a team of experts to research initiatives that'll help catch cases of abuse early, before they escalate.
"We want to do everything possible to stem the tide of these child deaths and horrific child abuse cases," Smith said. "When it's that prevalent, you have no choice but to confront it."
The state Department of Human Services is commending Smith's effort.
"We look forward to partnering with the Macomb County prosecutor in his commitment and dedication to reduce child abuse and neglect," Maura D. Corrigan, the DHS director, said in a statement. "This is truly a clear goal that we share."
The state has been working to implement court-ordered reforms to its foster care system since a 2008 settlement with the New York-based group Children's Rights. The group sued after a series of high-profile foster care deaths.
The state's five-year improvement plan aims to reduce caseloads and increase training and education requirements for caseworkers and managers. A December progress report noted deficiencies, including overburdened caseworkers, and said the agency wasn't meeting some deadlines for reform.
This month, the department announced it plans to hire least 500 college graduates to work in children's protective, foster care, adoption and juvenile services. DHS hopes to have the full-time positions filled by late spring.
Since mid-2009, Macomb County has prosecuted at least 10 people in horrific crimes involving young children. More than half of the victims died. Among the cases: Dawn Yorke, 53, is charged with first-degree murder in the June 11, 2009, strangling death of her 4-year-old granddaughter, Linda Marie Steele, at the family's former home in Warren.
Terry Borgia, 61, is accused of drowning her 4-year-old grandson, Deangelo Tobia, at her Clinton Township apartment Jan. 11, 2010. Borgia is charged with first-degree murder.
Todd Pink, 38, is charged with 15 felonies including two counts of first-degree murder in connection with a May 15, 2010, attack in Clinton Township that left his fiancee, Carrie Seils, and her 3-year-old son, Skyler, dead. Seils' daughter and a family friend were injured. Majd Al-Shara of Lenox Township tossed an accelerant into a fire pit on Sept. 19, 2010, causing an explosion that killed his 6-year-old daughter, Aliaa Al-Shara. The 41-year-old pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor child abuse charge and got probation.
Delniece Williams, 20, is accused of slamming her 8-month-old son George Wilburn Jr. on the floor at her boyfriend's Warren home Oct. 11, 2010, causing injuries that killed the boy. She's charged with felony murder and first-degree child abuse.
Renee King, 28, is charged with felony murder, child abuse and criminal sexual conduct in the Nov. 20, 2010, death of her 2-year-old stepdaughter, Lily Lynette Furneax-Wolfenbarger. Others are charged with sexually assaulting, burning and beating toddlers. In another headline-grabbing case, Carol Schnuphase allegedly duped her community and relatives, including her son, now 13, into believing the boy had cancer to get donations. She allegedly fed him opiates to make him look and feel ill.
John Ange, the Macomb County assistant prosecutor who is chief of the juvenile division, said the cases of abuse over the last year are among the worst he's seen in Macomb since he joined the office five years ago.
"Every time you turn around, the level of abuse and abuse resulting in death seems to be a consistent theme," he said. "It's human behavior at its worst."
Environment a factor
Sheri Pickover, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Addiction Studies at University of Detroit-Mercy, said national research has found that environmental factors — including poverty and stress — put children at higher risk for abuse. A lack of child development knowledge among caregivers also contributes.
"When the economy is better, stressors go down," said Pickover, a former foster care worker and supervisor who handled cases in Wayne, Oakland, Genesee, Livingston and Macomb. "When it gets worse, referrals go up."
Dorie Vazquez-Nolan, executive director of Mount Clemens-based Care House, a nonprofit that coordinates investigation, prosecution and treatment services for victims of child sexual and physical abuse, said the national trends ring true in Macomb. She's seen an uptick in the number of children who have witnessed violent crimes.
"We're excited that the prosecutor is looking into what we can do as a county to respond to these cases and hopefully prevent more of these deaths from occurring," she said.
Some relatives of Macomb County victims say they are eager to see what can be done.
George Wilburn, 20, whose infant son suffered fatal injuries allegedly inflicted by the baby's mother, Delniece Williams, said he met with a Child Protective Services caseworker and filed a court motion to get full custody after he noticed bruises and bite marks on the child last fall.
"If a baby has any type of mark on them that normally wouldn't happen from play, a child should be out of care of both parents," said Wilburn, of Taylor. "That way, it would help the parent who is not involved obtain full custody of their child and get their child out of that kind of environment."
A relative of Schnuphase, the Roseville woman accused of faking her son's cancer, said the boy appeared sick and she didn't realize he was being mistreated.
"There were never any obvious signs of abuse at any point," said Schnuphase's aunt, Lorraine Kelsch, 70, of Warren. "How do you spot abuse when it's not obvious?"
Safeguards in place
State-level initiatives to reduce child abuse and abuse-related deaths have been in place for decades.
The governor's Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect was established in 1991 to review and make recommendations about Michigan's investigative, administrative and judicial handling of such cases.
By 2000, child death review teams were organized in each Michigan county to evaluate the circumstances of child deaths and how they can be minimized or prevented. There also are 19 accredited children's advocacy centers statewide.
In fiscal 2009, there were 117,316 child abuse and neglect complaint reports received. Of those, 71,780 were investigated and 26 percent were confirmed, according to the state Children's Protective Services program.
As for Macomb, Smith said his office is formulating its steps to tackle the problem.
"We are going to try to do everything we can to make a difference in these kids' lives," he said.
Factors making kids vulnerable to abuse and neglect:
Children are younger than 5
Parents or caregivers younger than 30 Low-income, single-parent families experiencing major stresses Children left with male caregivers who lack emotional attachment to the child Children with emotional or health problems
Substance abuse among caregivers Parents and caregivers with unrealistic expectations of child development and behavior