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Jewish World Review Feb. 8, 2001 /15 Shevat, 5761

Bob Greene

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'THE LITTLE BOY'S FACE HAD BEEN BURNED WITH CIGARETTES'


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- PLYMOUTH, Ind. | PLYMOUTH, Ind. "When I see the hopelessness in the eyes of these children, I know I must do more than report it to the [Marshall County Division of Family and Children]. They seem unable to protect these children. Can you help? What can be done?"

With those words -- addressed in September to the Chicago Tribune -- a schoolteacher in Marshall County, Ind., began the chain of events that led to the removal of Stephen Neff, director of the Marshall County Division of Family and Children.

The schoolteacher said she had firsthand knowledge of three children -- a 5-year-old boy, a 3-year-old girl and a 1 1/2-year-old boy -- who she believed were being severely abused and neglected. She had repeatedly reported the abuse to the Marshall County children's protective office, she said -- yet no one seemed to be helping the children.

Marshall County is where, as we reported in 1999 and 2000, the 6-year-old son of Joseph Grad was tortured -- and where county children's protective workers failed to remove the boy from his torturers even after a sheriff's deputy in Kentucky alerted them. After our reporting of the Grad case, we began to hear from other families in Marshall County who said that reports of mistreatment of children were being ignored by the county agency.

The schoolteacher said that she hoped someone in authority could look into what was being done to these three children before it was too late.

Her allegations were troubling. Among them:

  • The 5-year-old boy had been intentionally burned with cigarettes on his face and hands.

  • The little girl had had her arm dislocated by a man in her mother's house.

  • The 1 1/2-year-old boy had been beaten so severely that the area "from his thighs up across his buttocks and up his back was a solid mass of bruises. . . . There were new bruises on top of older-looking bruises."

  • The little girl had been observed with "a large bruise on her forehead, a black eye, and a skinned nose." The girl identified the adult male who had done this to her.

What the schoolteacher could not understand was why the Marshall County Division of Family and Children, having been notified of these observations, seemed to be taking no action to protect the children.

Official documents of actions (or lack of actions) by a county child-protection agency in Indiana are not available to reporters. But we put the schoolteacher in contact with a person who could get access to the Marshall County records: James Hmurovich, state director of the Indiana Division of Family and Children.

Hmurovich personally looked into the schoolteacher's allegations. He then expanded what was to be a routine review of the office in Marshall County, and ordered that every child-abuse case in the county's files be re-examined by outside investigators.

The result, as we reported, was the dismissal of county director Neff. Hmurovich said that there was "a total breakdown" in the Marshall County office, that the failures there were "so significant and so severe" that "I would not be willing to say that children were safe in Marshall County." He said that Marshall County workers had given the county judge in charge of children's cases flawed, incomplete and misleading information on cases -- hindering the judge's ability to rule in the best interest of children based on accurate evidence.

(Stephen Neff declined our request for an interview. Neff's attorney said that Neff -- whom Indiana officials have offered a job outside the area of child protection -- is suing the State of Indiana, asking to be reinstated as county director.)

In the case of the allegations made by the schoolteacher in Marshall County, Hmurovich said: "We did not investigate this in a timely manner. We did not do the follow-up. The children were unsafe, and we did not know it. We didn't do our job."

At the time of the allegations by the schoolteacher, Neff was still in charge of the Marshall County office. And what happened when Hmurovich asked Neff's office for information about the children?

Marshall County workers gave Hmurovich's investigators the address of the house where they said the children were living -- and it was wrong. They were supposed to be protecting the children, and it turned out they didn't even know where the children were.

The State of Indiana was able to locate the children only by asking the schoolteacher who had contacted us for help. "Nobody in our Marshall County office knew where they were," Hmurovich said. We will report that story tomorrow.



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

Up

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