Mother on Trial for 2nd-Degree Murder in Death of Child Subject of Custody Dispute

This looks like another tragic case of (a) separated parents, (b) custody dispute, (c) child abuse and (d) death (WSLS, 3/15/11).  The article has links to previous articles that give more facts about the case.

The case is out of Bedford, Virginia; in 2008, a little girl was eight months old when she was brought to the emergency room by emergency medical technicians.  The child’s mother’s boyfriend had contacted 911 saying that the child’s eyes were rolling back in her head.  The girl was apparently dead on arrival at a nearby emergency room.

The mother, Cecilia Burnette is now on trial for second-degree murder.  The boyfriend has not been charged.  A pediatric emergency room specialist testified that the child’s injuries were so severe that they were similar to having been ejected from a vehicle in a high-speed accident or dropped from a multi-story building.

Perhaps more chilling even than that was Cecelia Burnette’s demeanor surrounding her daughter’s death.  She had left the little girl, Marissa Burnette, with her boyfriend, Josh Cheek, while she went to pick up a prescription.  Cheek called her to tell her that the baby was in distress and that her eyes were rolling back in her head.  She told him he was “overreacting.”  It took Burnette 45 minutes to return home.

During that time, Cheek called 911 and Burnette rode to the emergency room  in the EMS vehicle with her baby in the back.  She rode up front, spent most of her time talking on her cell phone and never looked back at the little girl.

Two weeks before, Marissa’s father, Adam Davis, had called Child Protective Services to tell them about injuries to Marissa.  What CPS’s response was has not been revealed. 

Cecelia Burnette has pleaded guilty to a drug charge; she’s admitted to lying about taking narcotics prior to taking a polygraph test; she’s admitted that Marissa received “four or five” “accidental” blows to her head; and she’s admitted that she lied about living with Josh Cheek, who is a felon, because it might jeopardize her already-contentious custody case.

The trial is ongoing.

It seems this is a problem – the death of children at the hands of a parent bent on keeping them from the other parent – with no end.  I’ve just posted a piece on Theresea Riggi, the American woman who stabbed her three children to death in Scotland because she feared her ex-husband would get custody. 

In Indiana, Amanda Bennett’s husband left her not long before she killed their three children and an older child who was hers by a previous marriage.  In New Mexico, Tabetha Van Holtz has been charged, along with her boyfriend in the death of her son.  Much as in the Burnette case, the boy’s father, had contacted CPS before the child’s death to report that he was being abused.

We all understand that child welfare agencies can’t be perfect; they can’t respond in time and effectively in every case in which abuse is alleged.  We all understand that family courts can’t get it right every time either.  Neither can the police.  Sadly, even when all those people and organizations do their best, some children will suffer and tragically, some of them will die.

But one thing that all must do is to connect two dots – custody battles and evidence of abuse.  Toss in another dot – drug or alcohol abuse – and you get a situation that’s ripe for child abuse.  Police, courts and CPS agencies must be trained to connect those dots and take emergency action if possible.  In each of the recent cases I mentioned except Bennett’s, CPS had information that, had it been acted on, could have saved the children’s lives.

Likewise, CPS agencies must once and for all drop their anti-father stance.  We’ve seen in case after case that CPS workers tend to prefer foster care to father care.  That’s the finding of an Urban Institute study revealing that, in most cases in which the father’s identity and whereabouts are know, he’s still not contacted for the purpose of child placement when the mother is determined to be unfit.

In every one of the cases mentioned above, paternal placement would have saved the life of a child. 

The point I’m making is that one of the data points CPS, the police and courts should pay close attention to is the existence of contentious custody issues.  Those, along with other high-risk factors, should alert those with the authority to do so, to intervene.

All too often, it’s a matter of life and death.

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