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Child Abuse Unit on a mission to defend the defenseless
Published on: Feb 10, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It was 2011 when Peter Kilmartin, in his first year as Rhode Island Attorney General, announced the formation of a Child Abuse Unit in that office. Never before, had the physical and sexual abuse of minors been separated from the catch-all caseload of criminal prosecutions.

“Starting 30 years ago,” said Kilmartin, “I can remember everyone – even in training, going on the police department – saying how difficult child cases are. How heart-wrenching child cases are. How they will stay with you for your career. And they do.”

Kilmartin’s vision was a specially-trained corps of attorneys and advocates, meeting weekly with staff at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, the Department of Children, Youth and Families, and law enforcement, to investigate possible crimes against children.

Child Abuse by the Numbers: Indicated Investigations of Abuse and Neglect in RI »
Child Abuse by the Numbers: Indicated Investigations of Abuse and Neglect in RI »

At Hasbro Children’s Aubin Center, there are times when the person bringing a child in for care is also the abuser.

“The most likely person to abuse your child is the person who sits at your Thanksgiving table,” said Dr. Christine Barron, a Hasbro pediatrician who works closely with the Attorney General’s office. “Unfortunately, perpetrators of abuse against children most of the time will actually be a caregiver, even a biological parent.”

In 2015, the Child Abuse Unit brought nearly 100 cases to their conclusion. Many went to trial.

Shannon Signore is unit chief – a veteran prosecutor with a cast-iron reputation.

“We’re usually talking about children who aren’t legally competent,” said Signore. “They aren’t able to say what happened to them. They’re maybe three, four weeks old.”

And the young victims who can speak are the least likely to report. Medical evidence talks. Signore has traveled the country studying everything from abusive head trauma to rib fractures.

“When we have that information,” said Signore, “that enables our police department to be able to go back and question this individual, and really go at them hard, and say, ‘Look, we know what you said. That’s not what happened. We know what happened based upon what the doctors are telling us happened.”

That was the case of Danielle Lefebvre, the young Providence mother who shook and threw her 6-week-old son so violently it put him on life support. Lefebvre said she found the baby on the floor.

The child, who Eyewitness News calls ‘Ryder’ to protect his identity, was later adopted by two nurses. One cared for him at Hasbro Children’s.

Dawn Johnsen is telling her story for the first time – one that began, in many ways, with a neurologist’s visit.

“She said, ‘we’re not talking about a little part of the brain. We’re talking about the entire brain – has been injured. And you can’t just fix it,’” Johnsen recalled.

Doctors saw Ryder as a clinical example of an infant unlikely to ever walk or talk. It took Johnsen a month to teach him how to grasp a teething ring.

Danielle Lefebvre would go on to reject a plea, setting up a process many families struggle to understand and endure.

“Shannon looked at me and said, ‘I have no problem trying this case in court. I have no problem trying this case.’ And I believed her,” said Johnsen. “And if I didn’t, I would have said, ‘good luck.'”

Johnsen said had it not been for Signore’s support, she would not have been able to see it through to the end. She wanted to quit so many times.

“There’s doing your job. And there’s doing it really, really well. And then there’s doing this kind of job really well, and still being a human being,’ said Johnsen. “And that has to be really hard.”

Support staff marshals families through seemingly endless delays and the trauma of testimony. That support continues even after a verdict.

Incidentally, it would take jurors little more than an hour to convict Lefebvre of first-degree child abuse. On sentencing day in December, Judge Netti Vogel blasted the now-30-year-old’s flat affect at trial, calling her a “narcissist,” who tortured a baby she brought into the world.

That baby has astounded the scores of clinicians who played a role in his developmental arc – physical, occupational and speech therapists, neurologists and neurosurgeons, ophthalmologists and social workers.

Johnsen says there is no medical explanation for Ryder’s trajectory.

“He’s a very typical 4-year-old boy,” said Johnsen. “He’s funny. He has a really sharp wit. He’s got a bit of an old soul in some ways. I often say there are lots of people who live their whole lives and never get to be part of a miracle like this. And I get to see this miracle every day. Yes, there’s tragedy in this story, for sure. But there are also so many miracles.”

But for every Ryder, there is a child who was never given a chance.

“People ask, ‘How many convictions have you had? I have no idea,” said Signore. “I really – I have no idea. I mean – life. A life sentence. How does that bring back the life of a child? It just doesn’t. The sentence is irrelevant.”

Doctors, state agencies, and police aren’t the only ones on the lookout for abuse. By state law, every person is required to report known or suspected cases of child abuse or neglect to DCYF within 24 hours of becoming aware of possible criminal conduct.

Eyewitness News checked and found the number of reports is steadily rising. In 2014, DCYF received 14,735 reports of maltreatment. That’s about an eight percent increase from 2012. Of those cases, 2413 were identified and investigated as cases of abuse. That’s up 6 percent over those same two years.

According to DCYF, “child abuse and neglect means the physical or mental injury, sexual abuse or exploitation, negligent treatment, or maltreatment of a child under the age of 18 by a person, including any employee of a residential facility or any staff person providing out-of-home care, who is responsible for the child’s welfare under circumstances indicating harm or threatened harm to the child’s health or welfare. The term encompasses both acts and omissions on the part of a responsible person.”

Call 800-RI-CHILD (800-742-4453) to report child abuse and/or neglect.