Loved ones of child abuse victims seek justice and tougher penalties in Maryland

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One of the worst issues that the four-state area faces today is child abuse. It may be uncomfortable to talk about, but it’s not going away – as statistics show physical and sexual abuse cases are rising at high rates in Maryland.

And loved ones of child abuse victims say their first-hand experiences have changed their lives forever.

This past year, Washington County was rocked by several cases of severe child abuse. First there was Melissa Collins, a 17-year-old Hagerstown girl who police said was raped and strangled to death by her stepfather in May.

Then there was Jack Garcia, who died from blunt force trauma after police said he ate a piece of birthday cake without permission. His mother’s boyfriend, Robert Wilson, was arrested while he was still on life support. Soon after he died, Oriana Garcia and his uncle, Jacob Barajas, were taken into custody as well.

Finally, there was Dustin Barnhart – an autistic child from Hancock who was also placed on life support after deputies said he endured severe beatings at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend, Aaron Vanmeter. Ashley Barnhart, his mother, was also later arrested and charged.

Dustin, however, survived the abuse and returned to Hancock to live with his grandparents after being released from the hospital.

Those three cases happened within a matter of weeks, all attracting considerable attention. For those who were close to the victims, however, those weeks felt like years.

“I DIDN’T WANT TO BELIEVE IT”

Terry Hassinger, the father of Melissa Collins and a resident of central Pennsylvania, could only watch from afar as his own nightmare unfolded.

“I had suspicions pretty much right from the dot that it was something serious,” he said. “I guess I didn’t want to believe it was real for awhile. It was one of those things that you hear it…no matter what, you hear it, but you just don’t want to believe it.”

Melissa’s stepfather, Ernie Chase, pleaded guilty to her murder back in December. Hassinger plans on being in the courtroom for his sentencing on April 29, as hard it may be for him emotionally.

“I don’t really want to see his face. You know, I don’t want to deal with it,” he said. “I’m going to have to hold back my anger. I’ve got to take care of three kids that I got here, and I want to stay. I don’t want to be the angry father who decides, ‘I want to go to prison myself, just to take care of beating this guy up.'”

If anyone knows what he’s going through, it’s Hancock native Jordan Lysczek. She lost her baby girl, Bella Appel, in 2010. She was less than two months old.

“My heart aches for them,” she said, concerning the loved ones of child abuse victims. “Every time I hear something like this on the news, I hate to see it happen. I wish this would never happen to anybody else. Nobody is deserving of this – no child, no child’s family.”

Her fiancée at the time was convicted on several charges, including manslaughter and child abuse resulting in death, after Bella suffered a broken neck and crushed skull.

“I am still shocked. I will always be shocked” Lysczek said. “It was absolutely the worst nightmare…I’ve had nightmares up to that point, and they weren’t anywhere near as scary as what I lived through.”

FIGHTING ABUSE IN ANNAPOLIS

Afterwards, she fought for “Justice’s Law,” which was passed in 2012 by the Maryland General Assembly, and raised the maximum sentence for child abuse resulting in death from 30 to 40 years.

The bill was named in honor of Justice Myers Cannon, a four-month-old boy who died in 2007 from blunt force trauma after he was “severely shaken” by his mother’s boyfriend. His grandmother, Dee Myers, has testified in Annapolis in an effort to advocate for tougher sentences against child abusers.

Delegate Brett Wilson (R-Washington), who is also the Assistant State’s Attorney in Washington County, is helping leading that battle. He supervises the Narcotics Task Force in his position, and is also the lead prosecutor for child advocacy cases. He estimates that he’s been involved with nearly 300 child abuse cases over his tenure.

“I wouldn’t wish anyone ever to have to go through a child’s autopsy,” he said. “If your nerves aren’t steeled to doing this type of work, that will do it – because that is as unnatural a scene as anything I’ve ever seen.”

After the latest high-profile child abuse cases in Washington County, Wilson introduced a bill that allows judges to impose life in prison if the child was killed. He said that was the original goal of Justice’s Law, but the content of the bill was “watered down” as it made its way through the legislature.

House Bill 94 stalled out in Annapolis during the 2016 session, receiving an unfavorable report from the House Judiciary Committee. Wilson explained that over time, it might have a better chance to succeed if the bill is amended to apply only to cases where the child was under 13 years of age – a similar limitation used in rape and sexual abuse cases involving minors.

“Children can’t fight back like adults can, or even teenagers can,” Wilson said. “To prove first-degree murder generally, you’re going to have the defendant who survived and the body – the corpse of the victim. Infants can’t fight back at all, toddlers can’t fight back at all. Kids under 10 barely can fight back.”

“Where we look to try first-degree murder cases, often times, it is the resistance that is put up by the victim that helps give us evidence of what happened. With a baby, you don’t have that. You just have a dead baby.”

DISTURBING TRENDS

If you think child abuse is increasing locally, you’re not wrong. National statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show the number of child abuse victims has risen by two percent from 2010 to 2014, the most current numbers available. Over that same time period in Maryland, however, it has risen by 20 percent.

Wilson believes that’s due to better reporting, as well as the lagging economy – which can be an environmental cause of abuse.

“With any type of stressful situation, you do have a greater potential for lashing out – for abusive behavior that wouldn’t ordinary be occurring,” he said.

When comparing national statistics to numbers in Maryland, it’s worth noting a few key differences. Of those child abuse victims across the country in 2014, 75 percent were neglected, while 17 percent were physically abused and more than 8 percent were sexually abused.

Looking at Maryland specifically, the rates of physical and sexual abuse are more prominent. More than 27 percent of victims in 2014 were physically abused, and about 10 percent were sexually abused – while close to 67 percent were neglected, which is lower than the national average.

The state did have a lower rate of total referrals for suspected child abuse than the national rate – however, Maryland is one of just two states in the U.S., including Wyoming, that does not impose any criminal penalties for failure to report child abuse. Although you are a “mandated reporter” if you are a health practitioner, educator, human service worker or police officer, there is “no teeth to the law” according to child advocates, concerning the Maryland statute.

Wilson said that since the Penn State child sex abuse scandal, bills have been filed nearly every session to impose a criminal penalty on those who fail to report. However, none of them have had much success.

“In my opinion, it’s not something that should be made a crime where there’s just a failure to report,” Wilson explained. “You could certainly, through inaction or concerted action to cover up, get yourself into a criminal situation. But I think it takes more than just being neglectful and not reporting.”

THE RECOVERY PROCESS

The disturbing trends of child abuse aren’t going away, and too often, it hurts more than just the victim. Ever since Melissa Collins passed away, her father has been going to counseling sessions in order to find a new support system.

“It’s probably the only way you’re really ever going to cope with it, even a little bit, because you’re never going to forget the one that you loved,” Hassinger said. “She’s always my little girl. She always made me smile, no matter what.”

Lysczek has also recovered not by trying to forget what happened, but remembering it. Now married with a two-year-old son, she operates her own civil law practice and aims to help children in any way she can. She is also involved in the Walk to End Child Abuse, which began in 2011 and is held every April in Hancock.

With the town being a “tight-knit community,” Lysczek also reached out to Dustin Barnhart’s family after his case came to light. While Melissa Collins and Jack Garcia can’t be brought back, Dustin lives on as a beacon of hope for victims and their loved ones.

“He has a long road ahead of him, but I think with the community support and the systems that are in place, he can make it,” Lysczek said. “We all have a role – not just parents or grandparents, but all of us, as a community, in the fight against child abuse.”

The Walk to End Child Abuse is scheduled for Saturday, April 30, at 8 a.m. in Widmeyer Park in Hancock.

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