(This is a copy of the
original story on the AJC site.)
Reprinted with the permission of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution.
[The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 12.05.99]
Lawmakers tried to open records of dead children. But just talking about Kendall Hunt's death cost two social workers their jobs.
By Jane Hansen
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer
Today in Georgia, the business of child protection remains virtually closed. Even when a child dies, people working within the system are expected to keep their mouths shut.
Julie Sadowski and Martha Dismer spoke out in their coastal community of Brunswick. They said 6-month-old Kendall Hunt never should have died. And saying so cost them their jobs.
Those who knew Kendall say he was a sweet baby born into a troubled family. His mother, Mindy, was 18 when he was born Feb. 10 last year. She looked 13.
Her boyfriend, Gary Shadron, was not the baby's father, but he was there when Kendall was born. He was always there, say family members and friends, who told authorities they feared him from the start.
At 17, Shadron had been arrested several times on weapons charges, terroristic threats, and in one case, for stalking a former girlfriend. The charges were all dismissed or reduced to less serious charges.
From the moment Kendall was born, hospital nurses and physicians expressed concern about his safety, medical and child welfare records show. Based on Shadron's behavior in the hospital, they called in Healthy Families, a national program offered to young mothers whose babies appear to be at particular risk.
Sadowski, a Healthy Families staff member, was the first to visit Mindy while she was still in the hospital. Her main concern, Sadowksi wrote in her records, was Shadron, a man who was not the baby's natural father and had a violent past.
The first report of abuse came when Kendall was 3 months old. His grandmother had discovered unusual bruising on his abdomen, which a pediatrician later said "resembles fingerprints." The Glynn County DFACS office opened a case, but Kendall remained at home with Shadron and his mother.
In May 1998, Martha Dismer, director of Healthy Families, wrote a letter to the head of DFACS asking him to move quickly on Kendall's case because of her staff's growing concern "about the safety of the infant."
Less than a month later, there was another report, this time for cigarette burns on the infant's hand and wrist. The same pediatrician, Frances Owen, examined the baby and concluded that based on the shape and spacing of the burns, they were intentional. She called child welfare workers a second time and demanded they take action to protect Kendall.
DFACS took immediate custody of the baby, by then 4 months old, and put him in foster care. But 10 days later, Glynn County Juvenile Court Judge Donald Manning returned custody to the mother, with instructions she was not to leave her baby alone with her boyfriend, with whom she lived.
When Owen, who had not been asked to testify, learned of the judge's decision, she called the court and asked that her testimony be heard.
At a second hearing in June, Owen and others who were there say she told the judge that Kendall was in grave danger in his home. She stated that in her judgment, the injuries to his abdomen and the burns on his hand had been intentional and if the court allowed him to remain at home, the child could die. But Manning held to his original ruling, and Kendall went home with his mother. Manning has refused to comment on his ruling or what was said that day in court, citing a code of ethics.
Less than three months later, on the night of Sept. 1, 1998, 6-month-old Kendall Hunt was drowned in the bathroom sink. Shadron was charged with murder and is awaiting trial.
At news of Kendall's death, Dismer, Sadowski and Owen were outraged. They spoke out and said the system had failed the baby.
Two weeks after an Oct. 2 article ran in The Brunswick News, quoting all three women, Sadowski was fired. Dismer was forced to resign, she said, to avoid being fired.
A lawyer who represented the commission that oversees Healthy Families said the women had been dismissed because they had breached confidentiality.
At a community forum last December, citizens said the wrong people had been punished, and some demanded that the judge and the child welfare agency be held accountable.
"How come things happened so quickly against Martha and Julie and nothing else happened?" one woman asked. A chorus of voices responded. "Retaliation," one said. "It was a coverup," said another.
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