Jewish World Review Feb. 8, 2001 /15 Shevat, 5761
'THE LITTLE BOY'S FACE HAD BEEN
BURNED WITH CIGARETTES'
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:
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.
The 5-year-old boy had been intentionally burned with cigarettes on his face
- 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.
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
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
(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
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
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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