Aug. 17, 2003, 10:28PM

In stories of lives cut short, crisis revealed

Recent child abuse cases add urgency to drumbeat for awareness, prevention

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

By all accounts, Jennifer Johnson was finally happy.

After coming out of an abusive relationship, she remarried and had a baby boy. The Johnson family, with the baby and two young daughters, moved into a little house in Brazoria.

"She had her happy little family unit," Johnson's mother, Teena Maenza said, her eyes filling with tears.

That came to an end in March when her 5-month-old, Robert, lapsed into a coma. Richard Shane Johnson was later charged with violently shaking his son.

Robert died last week after five months on life support.

The Johnson case and the tragic death of 2-year-old Linda Padilla of League City after severe physical and sexual abuse that police say was caused by her father are both sadly typical. Each child's death brings its own kind of pain to those involved.

Last year more than 47,000 Texas children were the victims of child abuse or neglect and 203 were killed. There are tragic stories behind each of those numbers. Lives are snuffed out far too soon, dreams are dashed and families devastated. Parents, grandparents, siblings and friends all suffer.

Despite social programs aimed at curtailing child abuse and neglect, the number of cases across the country, in Texas and in Harris County continues to climb.

"Frankly, we're not making a dent. The rate is fairly consistent," said Katherine Howard, director of Prevention Education and Community Outreach for Healthy Family Initiatives, a nonprofit agency that helps families deal with child rearing.

"It's not that good work isn't happening. We're just reactive. We don't value prevention. When it comes to child abuse and neglect, there still is a barrier. The stigma attached to it keeps people from wanting to understand it."

What is understood is that unless authorities can learn why or what causes abusers to abuse, the cycle will continue.

Many people believe that tackling child abuse only means teaching parents to better discipline their children. Not true, says Howard.

"Child abuse is not a simple problem," Howard said. "It's not as simple as saying, 'You just need to learn how to discipline your child better' or 'You're just a bad person.' You can't boil it down to that. There are so many risk factors that play into a parent abusing their child."

Those risk factors include social isolation, poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse, a parent's childhood history of mistreatment, mental illness, a parent's inability to cope with stress, a lack of parenting skills and lack of knowledge of child development.

In the League City case, in which the father is charged with sexually and physically abusing his young daughter on Aug. 8, Howard said she would have to talk to the father to understand his actions. Police said Frank Padilla, 44, confessed to beating the child because she wet her pants.

"That in no way excuses the act of abusing a child. But to change something, you have to first understand it," Howard said.

Padilla, who is unemployed, remains jailed in lieu of a $1.5 million bond. Prosecutors are considering upgrading the charge to capital murder after the girl died Wednesday when she was taken off life support. If convicted of capital murder, Padilla faces life in prison or death.

The girl's death has sent her mother, Magdalena Padilla, 33, a Romanian national in the United States on a one-year visa, into an emotional tailspin.

The same has happened to Jennifer Johnson in Brazoria.

She was working as a waitress on Sunday afternoon, March 23, when she got an urgent call from a neighbor that an ambulance was at her house and her baby wasn't breathing. Later that day the infant was transferred to Texas Children's Hospital in Houston and put on life support.

He died Tuesday.

"Within five days, all that mattered to me was taken away from me," Johnson said.

Child Protective Services officers took away Jennifer Johnson's two older daughters, ages 2 and 5. Unable to make the payments on her house, she had to move.

Little Robert Johnson, the doctors and police investigators said, had been the victim of "shaken baby syndrome." Doctors said he had been shaken so violently that there was bleeding inside his brain and eyes. Doctors also said he'd been hurt before. He had two broken ribs that were healing.

"If ever I had thought there would be the slightest possibility of any of my children being hurt, I would have gotten out of there," Johnson said.

Shane Johnson was arrested in the intensive care unit waiting room on April 29. He had been convicted of child abuse in Maryland in 1995 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Maryland records showed that he was paroled on June 13, 2001, and moved back to Texas, where his mother lived in Brazoria County. He was to have been on supervision until May 2006.

The Maryland records don't give any details of what happened there, but Jennifer Johnson said she was never worried about him hurting any of her children.

Neither Jennifer Johnson nor her mother would comment on whether they knew about Shane Johnson's background.

Shane Johnson, 30, is in the Brazoria County jail in lieu of $100,000 bail and has been charged with injury to a child. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Talk around Houston last week centered on Magdalena Padilla's contention that she was not aware her husband was allegedly abusing their young daughter.

Some wondered, "Did she not bathe her daughter?" and "Did she not change her daughter's clothes and see the bruises?"

In addition to injuries consistent with a sexual assault, the girl's skull, pelvis, ribs and one leg were fractured, and she had bruises all over her body and black eyes.

"Our big concern is this mom saying this child wasn't getting hurt," said Angela Felder with Justice for Children, a watchdog group that advocates the prosecution of child abuse cases.

League City police Det. Marty Grant, however, said Magdalena Padilla, who was at work at a Wal-Mart store in Kemah when the beating took place, is not a suspect.

Instead, Grant labeled her a victim herself and urged anyone in an abusive relationship to seek help from police.

"If you had a 30-minute interview with her, you would have all those questions answered," Grant said.

Padilla is expected to be a witness against her husband, whom she met on the Internet and married three years ago in the Romanian town of Ploiesti. Relatives of Magdalena Padilla in Romania told the Romanian newspaper Libertatea that the day of the beating Frank Padilla had interviewed for a job but didn't get it.

"We are devastated. My daughter called me and then wrote me an e-mail about the tragedy," Alexandru Cuhal, Magdalena Padilla's father, told the newspaper.

"I was stunned when I heard that baby Linda Gloria, my granddaughter that I didn't have the chance to hold in my hands, was murdered. I couldn't believe my ears."

Last week's deaths brought the issue of child abuse to the forefront. Officials who deal with child abuse hope the cases will encourage friends, neighbors and family members to report any signs of abuse.

Anyone can make a good-faith report to Child Protective Services with concerns about abuse or neglect of children. The calls to the CPS hot line are confidential, CPS spokeswoman Judy Hay said.

The number of reported cases to the agency usually dips in the summer, but Hay said her agency likely will see a rise by month's end, when schools resume in the area. She explained that teachers, nurses and school counselors and other professionals by law are required to report any possible abuse.

CPS is seeing more children removed from their homes and placed in protective custody due to parental drug and alcohol abuse, Hay said.

During the three-month period ending in May, 423 children in Harris County were removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. More than 4,100 children were under CPS's watch on May 31.

Howard, with Healthy Family Initiatives, says abuse and neglect are problems her agency aims to curtail.

Through referrals from social agencies or clinics, the organization helps families who are low-income, have little education and are without any social support.

The program accepts families while the mother is pregnant or until an infant is three months old. From there, family assessment workers visit the families once a week the first year and can continue helping the family until the child enters kindergarten.

The 10-year-old program is based on helping prevent child abuse and neglect from several fronts. Aside from acquiring parenting skills, families learn about the importance of immunizations, how to deal with stress and even how best to play with their children.

Without looking at different factors that go into raising children, Howard says, the chances of neglect or abuse can increase.

The agency served 312 families last year and currently has 130 families on its roll.

But Howard's and other programs took a hit this year when state lawmakers slashed funding.

Healthy Family Initiatives' Houston program saw a loss of $190,000 in state funds, 27 percent of its total budget. But the agency was able to raise the lost revenue through private donations, said Marianne L. Ehrlich, president and chief executive officer of HFI.

"There were lawmakers who said, if it's between those who are bleeding and those who are at risk of bleeding, we'll go with those who are bleeding," Howard said. "We were lucky that we had other sources of funding. We're trying to work with churches and get some faith-based funding."

State Rep. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, chairman of the House Human Services Committee, could not be reached for comment regarding the cuts to child abuse prevention programs.

Other HFI programs throughout the state that were solely dependent on state funds have to shut down. Ehrlich said only half of the 14 HFI programs statewide remain operational.

"We try to be proactive about knowing the funding was going away and replacing it," Ehrlich said. "We're down to about 130 families. That's really sad."


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