A 2-year-old Tulare boy was tied up and beaten until his heart stopped, police say.
A 1-month-old Terra Bella boy and a 2-month-old Hanford girl showed injuries from blunt force, authorities say.
And circumstances surrounding the death of a Fresno 6-month-old are under investigation.
Three babies and a toddler – all dead – were alleged victims of child abuse in the past six weeks in the central San Joaquin Valley.
The cases are not related, but all involve alleged violence against a child, and Valley child abuse experts say they are seeing more cases of children with severe injuries from physical abuse. Why more children are being physically harmed is difficult to answer, but poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence and mental health are risk factors for child abuse, the experts say.
“We have seen an increase in the number of kids who are physically abused to the point where they require hospitalization,” said Janie Salazar, nurse practitioner at the Guilds of Valley Children’s Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Center.
Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera County admitted 146 abuse patients last year, Salazar said. There has been a steady rise in the past five years, when 83 children were admitted in 2012.
There are so many child-abuse cases in Fresno and Tulare counties that district attorney’s offices have lawyers devoted just to prosecuting accused abusers.
In Tulare County, for example, six attorneys are in the child protection unit created in 2013. Two of the team concentrate on cases of physical abuse. The county has nine active homicide cases that involve deaths of children that occurred from 2010 to the most recent death of the 2-year-old on July 16. “We have enough cases to keep a full-time child homicide prosecutor busy,” said Assistant District Attorney David Alavezos.
I’ve seen more torture here than I’ve seen anywhere that I’ve ever lived.
Dr. Philip Hyden, Valley Children’s Hospital
In three of the homicide cases – one from a death in 2010, another in 2012 and the third in 2015 – the county is asking for the death penalty. Each has a special circumstance of torture, Alavezos said.
Child fatalities highlight a tragic consequence of child abuse, but Esther Franco, director of the Fresno Council on Child Abuse Prevention, said deaths tell only part of the story. For every child who dies “an average estimate is 100 are suffering in those same conditions but they haven’t died, yet,” she said.
In 2016-17, Fresno County Child Protective Services received 2,906 calls about suspected physical child abuse, which was 15 percent of the total the agency received. The vast majority of calls – 60 percent – were about neglect, which involve parents failing to provide children with such necessities as food, nurturing or supervision.
Mothers as well as fathers and nonbiological caretakers have been perpetrators.
“Your child needs love and support to grow healthy,” Franco said. “A lot of these parents are focused on their own problems,” she said. “Unfortunately, the rearing and healthy development of their child is not a priority.”
Dr. Philip Hyden, medical director at the child abuse prevention and treatment center, said the increase in hospitalizations of young people with serious abuse injuries could be because Valley Children’s is a pediatric trauma center. Children are transferred to its emergency department from hospitals as far away as Bakersfield, San Luis Obispo and Modesto. Awareness of the child abuse prevention and treatment center and more education about child abuse in the community also could be behind some of the increase, he said.
But Hyden, who has treated abused children for 30 years in places like New York, Hawaii and Los Angeles, said the child abuse he’s seen in the Valley since coming here seven years ago is the worst he’s encountered.
“I’ve seen more torture here than I’ve seen anywhere that I’ve ever lived.”
Bound and gagged
The abuse started on Feb. 1 and stopped July 16, when the 2-year-old was brought to Tulare Regional Medical Center not breathing and without a heartbeat, police said.
He died at the hospital.
The toddler had been bound with a rope, gagged and beaten, allegedly forced to kneel with his hands behind his head, struck in the head and deprived of sleep. A 3-year-old girl found in the home had injuries consistent with abuse and had been deprived of food, according to court documents.
Edward Lee Dias Jr., 36, Shania Alamillo, 23, and Adriana Alamillo, 27, face a handful of charges, including murder, conspiring to commit torture, torture and child abuse. And there are special allegations of the use of a deadly weapon and causing great bodily injury to a child under 5. Dias and Shania Alamillo allegedly used a piece of wood, about a foot and a half long, during the abuse, according to the court documents.
According to Tulare County, the county’s child protective services department had not had prior contact with Dias or the Alamillos. They have pleaded not guilty.
74.8 percent of child fatalities are younger than 3 years old Child Maltreatment 2015
The case is so recent that Robert Bartlett, the Visalia lawyer who represents Adriana Alamillo, said last week that he had met with his client only once. Lawyers for Shania Alamillo and Dias did not return telephone calls. A hearing on Sept. 28 has been scheduled to set the next court date.
Adriana Alamillo is the adopted sister of Shania Alamillo, Bartlett said. The boy who died is the son of Shania Alamillo. The girl is the child of Adriana Alamillo. Dias has been described as a roommate and not biologically related to either child.
About two weeks before the Tulare women were arrested, another Tulare County mother, Tracy Rodriguez, 24, of Terra Bella, was charged in the death of her infant son, who died June 26. And in that same week in Kings County, Veronica Brouwer, 40, of Hanford, had been charged with the death of her infant daughter.
Both babies had blunt-force injuries revealed through autopsies, authorities said.
Lawyers for Rodriguez and Brouwer did not return telephone calls. Both women have both pleaded not guilty.
Explanations not easy
The alleged involvement of mothers in the recent child deaths raised some eyebrows in the community, but it is not unusual that mothers are perpetrators of child abuse. Women were 55.1 percent of the abusers in California in 2015. Nationwide, according to the 2015 Child Maltreatment report, approximately 70 percent of victims were maltreated by a mother – and in 40.9 percent of the time, the mother acted alone.
Alavezos does not comment on pending cases, but, he has prosecuted mothers in the past for child abuse, including on charges of torture and murder.
“Sometimes it’s the mothers allowing the boyfriend or dad (to commit the abuse), and sometimes they’re doing it themselves,” Alavezos said.
Hyden can’t speak to a specific case, but said “anyone is capable of committing child abuse. “You don’t know what you might do if you are angry enough, or upset enough or sad enough.”
Daily frustrations of child-rearing, such as a whiny child, another soiled diaper or a potty-training accident, can trigger abuse, Hyden said. It’s difficult to comprehend, he said. “I don’t know what it is in them to make them do that (harm a child). Especially the torture cases – I can’t understand what makes some people do what they do.”
But child abusers all are not monsters, Hyden said. “Sometimes it’s a one-time thing. They have made a mistake.”
Finding an explanation for child abuse is not easy, but Hyden has some understanding of the risk factors in the Valley.
“I think it’s due to poverty. I think it’s meth (methamphetamine). I think it’s multigenerational child abuse. I think it’s due to kids having kids. I think it’s due to people having very dysfunctional families.”
Child abuse can be passed from generation to generation as a learned behavior, he said. “It’s taught. Neglect is taught. Abuse is taught.”
He also has come to another conclusion: “I think people seem to be angrier than they have ever been – more frustrated. Things are harder than they’ve ever been. And people have lost the ability to be nice, especially to their kids.”
Abuse doesn’t discriminate. But poverty adds another layer. It adds to the stress in the home.
Ramona C. Chiapa, executive director of the Tulare County Child Abuse Prevention Council
Ramona C. Chiapa, executive director of the Tulare County Child Abuse Prevention Council, said life is hard for many families. Poverty rates in some Tulare County communities are higher than 45 percent, and in 2015 over 104,130 families with children lived in poverty – more than one in four families, according to the council.
“Abuse doesn’t discriminate,” Chiapa said. “But poverty adds another layer. It adds to the stress in the home.”
Tricia Gonzalez, deputy director of child welfare for Fresno County, said poverty by itself is not a child-abuse issue, but substance abuse added to poverty can be a toxic combination.
Methamphetamine is a significant factor in many of the neglect cases, Gonzalez said.
Out of 426 child abuse court cases opened in Fresno County between Jan. 1 and July 31, a total of 226 of the alleged abusers self-disclosed having used methamphetamine, 120 said they had used marijuana, 51 said alcohol and 10 had used prescription drugs. Eight had used heroin and nine had used cocaine.
Franco is trying to put together a program for substance-using pregnant women in Fresno County, whether the drug is alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamines or opiates.
It’s clear what roles that poverty and substance abuse play in child abuse, she said. “If I could get rid of substance abuse and poverty, I could wipe out about 80 percent of child maltreatment.”
Encouraging that call
Child abuse cases can be complex, though.
Gonzalez said her workers are finding domestic violence combined with substance abuse and mental health issues in some families where there is child abuse. “It’s a lot more complicated to kind of sort through and also to kind of deal with.”
Maybe the multidysfunction in families is behind an increase in reports of child abuse in the community. Gonzalez can’t quite find a reason, but beginning about two years ago calls about child abuse began increasing. “We’re not necessarily taking more referrals, but more people are calling in or people are calling to just get a resource or they’re worried about something.”
Fresno County took 28,000 calls about child abuse between Jan. 1 and July 30. Social workers substantiated 1,242 of the reports.
Many of the callers reported more than one type of suspected child abuse, and of the 2,906 allegations of physical abuse, the county said 106 were substantiated. The calls of children being physically harmed are horrible to take, Gonzalez said.
In Tulare County a concerted effort has been made to encourage people to report child abuse, and Chiapa said it’s had an effect. Referrals have increased from 7,569 in 2012 to 8,706 in 2016.
“We don’t necessarily see numbers of referrals as a negative,” said Natalie Bolin, division manager for child welfare services in Tulare County.
Child protective workers in Fresno and Tulare counties are trying to intervene with families before physical abuse or neglect occurs. The counties refer parents to family resource centers where they can go to parenting classes and attend support groups, among other services that are available.
Preventing child abuse requires a community effort, Bolin said. The recent deaths of children in the Valley “reminds the community of how important it is to pick up the phone and call when you suspect child neglect or child abuse.”
Substantiated cases of child abuse and neglect
2015, rate per 1,000 population
Fresno County: 8.4
Kings County: 12.3
Madera County: 8.3
Merced County: 7.6
Tulare County: 7.7
Five counties with highest child abuse/neglect rate
Del Norte: 22.8
Five counties with the lowest child abuse/neglect rate
San Mateo: 2.3
San Benito: 3.6