People more aware of child abuse cases
By RACHEL STONE
BEAUMONT _ The latest chapter in a string of sensational Southeast Texas child abuse cases is set to begin today with the trial of a woman accused of killing one newborn and leaving another for dead.
Kenisha Eronola Berry, 27, faces a capital murder charge in the 1996 death of "Baby Hope," a newborn found in an apartment complex trash bin, bound in duct tape and stuffed into a garbage bag.
Jury selection begins in that case today. If convicted, Berry could face the death penalty.
Police connected Berry to Baby Hope after her arrest on charges she dumped another baby in a ditch in June 2003.
Berry has since named that baby, whom a passerby had found partially covered in fire ants, Parris.
But Kenisha Berry's is just one of about a half-dozen cases that have rocked child advocates here lately.
Last week, Luther Garner of Beaumont, 22, was sentenced to life in prison and a $10,000 fine for shaking his infant son to death.
He also is accused of seriously injuring another infant while he was out on bond last year.
In December, Tamecca Henderson, 21, and Perry Pippillion, 34, both of Beaumont, were arrested in the October starvation death of their 2-year-old daughter.
Also last month, Sharon Kay Malbreau, 28, and Rose Mary Moss, 48, were indicted on injury to a child charges in the March death of Malbreau's 2-year-old son.
The two, who lived in a Beaumont motel, told police they had severely beaten the boy, who died of pneumonia, because he was possessed by demons.
Tabitha A. Boone of Livingston, 25, was charged with capital murder Jan. 9 after she led Polk County Sheriff's officers to the site where she allegedly buried her 6-year-old son after beating and choking him to death.
A Port Neches 15-year-old was charged with manslaughter this month and is accused of smothering her newborn on Thanksgiving Day.
Katrina Fergerson of Beaumont, 29, could stand trial on a capital murder charge next month.
She is accused of having been drunk when she allegedly birthed a baby into a toilet and let it drown in November 2002.
"It seems like every time we turn around, there's a shaken baby or an abandoned baby," said Marion Tanner, executive director of the Garth House, a non-profit child abuse prevention agency.
Tanner said stress from a poor economy and tight job market can increase child abuse.
She thinks the number of cases recently is unusually high, but it's hard to prove.
The Child Fatality Review Team, a panel composed of law enforcement officials and child advocates, used to get birth and death certificates on every child that died in Jefferson County in a given year. But budget cuts have taken that luxury away.
Now the team, whose purpose is to help prevent child fatalities by studying them, must use newspaper obituaries and news stories to come up with its own data.
In 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available, three Jefferson County children died from child abuse.
"Even three homicides of children _ that's intolerable in our society in this day and time," Tanner said.
While it might seem the region is plagued with extreme cases of child abuse lately, Randi King, a Jefferson County assistant district attorney who specializes in CPS cases, said there are no more than usual.
"We just have a lot of cases that are coming to a head right now," said King, who helped convict Luther Garner.
As people become more aware of the child abuse problem, they're more willing to speak up about it, said Karen Stauffer, Child Protective Services spokeswoman.
"Instead of people saying, `Somebody else will do something about it,' they're more likely to speak out, and that's been a good thing," Stauffer said.
"Babies can become overwhelming."
Thanks to a grant from the governor's office, the Garth House Prevention Program was born in November.
The program, which serves Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties, aims to educate new parents before they leave the hospital.
"We want them to know that even though this is an exciting time in their lives, babies cry and babies can become overwhelming," Tanner said.
People know what to do for a flat tire, a broken appliance or a speeding ticket but often lack a support system for dealing with the woes of parenthood, Tanner said.
"These are our children and we need to have a plan for what to do when they overwhelm us," she said.
Every parent should have someone _ a family member, friend, church leader or babysitter _ who can take over or help out when parenting becomes too stressful.
Jefferson County's Loving Arms Program allows mothers to leave a newborn with any emergency medical provider anonymously and without prosecution.
As long as the infant is uninjured, 60 days old or younger and put into the "loving arms" of emergency room or fire department personnel, the state cannot press abandonment charges against the mother.
The Garth House is seeking volunteers to help present information to new parents. For information, call (409) 838-9084.
"I think it's going to take a big community push and community education to at least decrease this problem," Tanner said.
"I'm not saying we can wipe it out, but I think we can make it better."
Reach this reporter at:
(409) 833-3311 ext. 415
The Beaumont Enterprise 2004