Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Report: Anonymous Ind. hotline caller pleaded 20 minutes for abuse check before boy’s death

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — An anonymous caller to Indiana’s child abuse hotline pleaded for 20 minutes for someone to check on conditions in a South Bend home six months before a boy living there was tortured to death, a newspaper reports.

The South Bend Tribune posted the story online ( ) Monday, after the Court of Appeals dismissed an attempt by the Department of Child Services to block the story’s publication. The caller last May told the person answering the phone at the hotline about another child’s injuries that day. The caller said the injuries left the boy limping and bleeding in his abdomen.

“Please go tonight. Please go,” the caller says. “I’m not saying this just to be saying this. Please go. Something got to be done. ... If they go there right now, they’ll see how them kids is beat, if they go there right now, because I don’t want it to get on the news and the boy died and then everybody come forward and they gonna say, ‘Well, why did nobody come forward from before?’”

Ten-year-old Tramelle Sturgis was found beaten to death in the house on Nov. 4, months after the May 27 hotline call.

His father, Terry Sturgis, is charged with murder, eight felony counts of battery and one misdemeanor count of battery, two counts of neglect, and two counts of confinement. He contends he was insane.

The Tribune reported a DCS spokeswoman did not respond to the newspaper’s requests to clarify policies on when the agency decides to investigate a call immediately and how urgent hotline calls are communicated to local offices. John Ryan, the agency’s chief of staff, declined comment to The Associated Press on Monday, saying he didn’t know enough about the policies or the case.

The Tribune reported that DCS documents it obtained under the state’s public records law indicate the call center contacted a family case manager the night of the call. The records do not indicate whether any action was taken then.

According to South Bend Police spokesman Capt. Phil Trent, police took a report from an anonymous caller just after midnight. Police records show two officers went to the house, having been told only that 10 children were possibly being abused. Trent said officers went to the home and everything appeared fine. He said unless police have more details to provide probable cause, they cannot enter a house after midnight, pull children aside and ask to look under their shirts for injuries. If an officer saw an injury or blood on a shirt, he would have probable cause.

“If you suspect that (abuse), you can seize the child, but you’d better be able to articulate why you did that,” he said.

The caller to the DCS hotline told the DCS worker the children would likely have marks.

“All you got to do is just raise them shirts up,” the caller replies with concern. “And I think them kids would tell it because them kids so scared.”

The caller said that the week before, some of the children were beaten so badly that their visible injuries kept them from being sent to school.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said he asked the state Court of Appeals to dismiss DCS’ attempt to block the South Bend Tribune from publishing a story because prior restraint of the news media is inconsistent with the First Amendment. Ryan, who is with the DCS, said the agency was concerned the media would publish information that would identify the caller.


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