In Harm's Way: South Bend child abuse survivor remembers cousin's death
Child abuse is a dark secret that seems to only come to light when a child is badly hurt, or worse, dies.
Federal figures showed a sharp rise in child abuse fatalities in the US with most of the increase happening in two states: Indiana and Texas.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, from 2015 to 2016, Indiana's child abuse death toll more than doubled from 34 to 70.
There's a lot of blame to go around, from the state's opioid crisis to an overwhelmed child welfare system.
But ultimately, it's what's going on behind closed doors, the abuse and neglect that put children in harm's way.
Around here, there's one case that shook our community to its core: the death of 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis. It's been nearly 7 years since his murder in a South Bend home.
“At least once a day I drive by this house, but I never stop,” said Detective Jim Taylor. “This is the first time.”
Taylor may be a 20-year veteran officer with the South Bend Police Department, but what happened inside a house on West Washington still gets to him.
“It's probably, if not the, worst case we've ever worked,” said Taylor. “Just to stand in front of this house brings back so much horrific terror.”
Ten-year-old Tramelle Sturgis lost his life during a night of torture in the basement.
Tramelle and his older brother suffered countless blows and burns from their father, Terry Sturgis.
Their grandmother, Dellia Castile, was upstairs, and while she knew about the ongoing abuse, she didn't stop it.
Both are in prison.
“He fought for so long. Not just him, but his brothers and sisters. The rest of those kids in that house,” said Taylor.
Eight other kids lived in that house. They were siblings and cousins who faced a much different sentence as survivors of child abuse.
“Nobody knew what happened. People might say they did, but nobody knew what happened but the ones that lived in the home,” said Jon'Nae Copprue.
Jon'Nae is one of the children who lived in the home.
“I felt like one of us was going to die. I felt it and I always said it,” said Jon'Nae.
She was just 12 years old.
“I always felt like something was going to happen. Somebody was going to get hit too hard and go to the hospital or one of us was going to end up dead. I always felt like it was going to happen,” she said.
It did happen, to Tramelle.
“I'm not happy about him being dead, but I'm also like maybe this was our way of getting out.”
Jon'Nae is 18 now and lives in a foster home outside of the Michiana area. She's pregnant with her third child and finishing up her GED.
“I'm slowly still trying to deal with it. I can say I’m dealing with it better than I used to, because I got kids and they are amazing,” Jon'Nae said.
Jon'Nae and her siblings were being raised by their grandmother when the abuse took place. Jon'Nae spoke exclusively with WNDU’s Tricia Sloma about what it was like to live in that home.
Jon'Nae says she was abused by her mother, her older sister and her cousin's killer, her Uncle Terry. He was the person she feared the most.
“He was always upset, he was always angry,” remembered Jon'Nae. “Always ready to release his anger on somebody.”
“The way that the power of his arm when he was swinging, then whoopin’ us with poles and sticks and anything he could get his hands on. You bound to break a bone or anything,” said Jon'Nae.
“(They) hit us with crowbars, extension cords, anything they could pretty much get their hands on,” explained Jon'Nae.
Terry made sure their injuries weren't visible.
“We really didn't wear dresses, shorts or anything like that because we had bruises,” said Jon'Nae. “We would wear long thermals to cover scars up.”
Jon'Nae says she's never had a best friend, and kids at school were mean.
“I would not want to be around other kids because I feel they would hate on me, see my scars, they would pick on me. So I would be just like, alone,” said Jon'Nae. “I felt like I was the only one, other than my brothers and my sisters. I just felt like nobody, nobody cared.”
Months before Tramelle's death, the Department of Child Services (DCS) was called to the home. There was another time that police showed up. But in every instance, authorities found nothing wrong. The kids were instructed to lie.
“So it was like nobody cares. After a while I think we just stopped caring. It was just a normal thing to us. It was just life,” said Jon'Nae. "It was going to happen forever. Probably until we moved out of the house."
Or until, in Tramelle’s case, someone died.
“November 4, 2011. The worst day of my life. The day my cousin died.”
Jon'Nae was upstairs with her grandma that night. She heard and witnessed things that will never leave her.
“You can still hear the screams. I went downstairs and I seen a couple of things myself. My cousins being tied up to poles, naked. Just being tied up to poles, mouth was taped. They was getting hit in the head. Punched in the chest. It was something I’d never seen before. Worse than he ever did anything,” recounted Jon'Nae. “That night? I don't think anybody could forget it. And after that it just went downhill from there.”
After Tramelle’s murder, Jon'Nae and her siblings were separated from her cousins and put into foster care. She admits to acting out and acting up.
“I can say for a while I was really aggressive. My head was messed up. After that I was really angry. I just wanted to fight everybody. Smoke. Drink. Do anything to hold the hurt in,” said Jon'Nae. “I didn't care about what anybody said. I just wanted everything to end.”
Jon'Nae estimates she's been in nine or ten foster homes, juvenile detention and residential care.
“Me and the foster parents got into it because we didn't know each other. It's kind of scary going into different homes and different families because you don't know anything about them, they don't know anything about you they don't know about your emotions. They don't know about your past,” explained Jon'Nae.
“I've been in so many schools. I've never stayed in a school since I’ve been in the system. Since I’ve been in foster care, I’ve never stayed in a school more than six months,” said Jon'Nae.
Jon'Nae wishes her grandma never went to prison.
“My grandma, she never whooped us,” defended Jon'Nae . “For people that think she's more responsible. She's responsible in a way, but everything is not up to her.”
When Sloma pointed out that Castile was the only adult living in the home that could’ve stopped it, she replied, “Yeah, but imagine you having fear. Imagine you having a lot of fear. You don't know what's going to happen. You have fear of him and you also have fear of losing your family.”
“If it was all up to her, it was all up to us too. Because we stayed there. We got mouths, we could've said something. We was old enough to say something, but it's the fear that got to us.”
It was the fear and trauma that fractured a family.
“I miss him every day,” said Jon'Nae. “That's one of my biggest scars, and the other scar is not having that family.”
Jon'Nae says she'll never forget Tramelle and doesn't want you to forget him either. She would like to continue her education and someday work in the legal profession helping victims of child abuse.
If you would like to report child abuse, please contact authorities at the following numbers.
In Indiana, the child abuse and neglect hotline is 1-800-800-5556. In Michigan, the number is 855-444-3911.
Watch Part 2 -