Salinas Police Chief Kelly McMillin described it as one of the worst cases that he’s ever laid eyes on. “Suffice it to say it was terrible,” he told reporters recently. “I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never seen such abuse.”
Two children, a 3-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy, their bodies stuffed into a plastic bin and left inside a Redding storage unit like extra Christmas decorations. A 9-year-old girl found in a parked SUV with broken bones and broken teeth. She weighed just 40 pounds.
It’s a horrific case, made all the more so by the sad timing of a joyous holiday season.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for this tragedy – starting, of course, with the two people who will be charged with killing and torturing them, Tami Joy Huntsman and her companion, Gonzalo Curiel.
But Delylah Tara and her older brother, Shaun, died from physical abuse. Abuse that likely went on for weeks, if not months. Why didn’t more people notice? Why didn’t anyone step in to help? Where were the people who were supposed to catch this? These are questions that need answers.
Huntsman’s mother, Joy Huntsman, told The Bee’s Richard Chang and Sam Stanton that she called Child Protective Services several times about the poor condition of her daughter’s apartment. CPS did indeed come out – four times during the past year, according to the agency – but workers never removed any children.
A Salinas cop, responding to an anonymous tip about suspected abuse, entered the apartment at least once in the past six months and found nothing worth a call to CPS. Just a child sleeping and two others doing homework.
And yet, investigators who searched the apartment last week found it in such apparently poor condition that Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo could only wonder “how someone could raise a child” there.
It doesn’t make sense. It’s tempting to point fingers and demand that police and social workers get better at spotting the signs, that they do more. While that ultimately might prove to be the right thing to demand in this extraordinary case, it glosses over the very real and complicated reasons why, in other cases involving kids living in troubled homes, “more” isn’t done.
Removing a child from a home is an extraordinary step, the last resort. One reason is that often there aren’t many better places for kids to go. Social workers have to scramble to find homes for children they’ve removed, many of whom are suffering from trauma.
The notion that some army of qualified, financially and emotionally stable adults stands ready to take in any strange child who needs help is false. There aren’t enough foster parents. And those who do become foster parents can become disillusioned by the system when a child they’ve grown to love is sent back to his or her biological parents.
We’ve taken to heart the notion of “if you see something, say something” when it comes to terrorism, but too many of us fail to do so when it comes to adults who terrorize children. People don’t want to get involved. They mind their own business. And those who do come forward often are afraid to give their names. With anonymous tips, building a case to prove ongoing abuse can be tough.
“When people call anonymously,” Salinas Police Chief McMillin said, “it really does make our job difficult.”
It’s infuriating to think that authorities missed the clues that could have saved the lives of two children and avoided some of the beatings that will scar the third for life. Time will tell whether “more” could have been done.
But in keeping our eyes open and speaking out about abuse when it happens, there are things, important things, that the rest of us can do, too.