Four educators from Three Oaks Elementary School have now all pleaded "no contest" after they were accused of failing to report suspected child abuse.
Principal Heidi Clark, special education teacher Diane Balling, guidance counsellor Matt Cook and teacher Sherrie Bender all worked at the school.
Investigators found emails shared between them that showed they worried for the safety of a young boy.
That boy was found earlier this year near railroad tracks in Galien Township. He weighed only 47 pounds and "was bruised, dehydrated and exceptionally skinny. Further, the physician found a cut lip, old cigarette burns and each rib was observable and well defined," according to a report from Berrien County Prosecuting Attorney Michael J. Sepic.
The four educators pleaded no contest to one count of failing to report suspected child abuse, a 93-day misdemeanor.
They've been sentenced to probation, fines and 100 hours of community service.
"While there were occasions when others involved in this young boy’s life could have shortened the period of abuse, educators and other mandated reporters are involved in the lives of children every day," Sepic said. "The law mandates they report if they have reasonable cause to suspect abuse. Please, if abuse is suspected, report it. If it does not appear the abuse is alleviated, report it again. One cannot assume issues have been addressed."
An investigation led to child abuse, torture and other felony charges against the boy's father, Aaron Zemke, and step-mother, Alicia Zemke. Earlier this year, both pleaded no contest to child abuse 1st degree and each received a prison sentence of 20 to 80 years.
Sepic released the following op-ed on Thursday. He titled it "If you see something, say something!":
In May of this year I announced charges against four educators at the Three Oaks Elementary School for failing to report suspected child abuse.
Below is a brief review of that case:
The case involved a 12-year-old boy who was found near railroad tracks in Galien Township by a railroad worker in August of 2106. The boy lived nearby and had been reported missing the evening before.
Police took custody of the boy and placed him with the Department of Health and Human Services. As a result, the boy was examined by a physician who reported the boy weighed 47 pounds (substantially below the 5th percentile of boys his age in weight and below the 1st percentile in height), was bruised, dehydrated and exceptionally skinny. Further, the physician found a cut lip, old cigarette burns and observed that each rib was well defined.
When interviewed the child told police his father and stepmother kept him from eating. He ran away because he “was tired being treated like a dog and he didn’t think he would reach his 13th birthday.” The physician confirmed that his condition was serious and life threatening.
An investigation led to child abuse, torture and other felony charges against his father and stepmother. Earlier this year, both pled no contest to Child Abuse 1st Degree and each received a prison sentence of 20 to 80 years.
Through the course of the investigation and court process it was discovered the boy’s condition was noticed by school personnel at Three Oaks Elementary School as much as two years prior to his running away in August of 2016.
The evidence against the four educators included emails in which the health of the boy was discussed, over an extended period. Some of the emails stated, “He appears to be hungry throughout the day and appears to be 15 – 20 pound lighter than last year” and “He never stays home…even if he’s not feeling good…because he’s too afraid of his step-mom” and “I feel being on his own and finding a shelter through a city program will provide him more nutrition and guidance … that what he’s receiving at home.”
The case is confused by the involvement of the Department of Health and Human Services who investigated physical abuse of the boy during the middle of the 2-year period and did not substantiate abuse. Part of that investigation at that time was a medical review of the child for physical abuse. Unfortunately, the weight issue was not sufficiently addressed. Nonetheless, the educators were still noticing additional weight loss thereafter and were concerned – but failed to report their concerns then and at various other points during that two-year period.
The four educators have all resolved their cases. They have pled no contest to 1 count of Failing to Report Suspected Child Abuse, a 93 day misdemeanor. They all received a sentence of probation, fines and costs, and were ordered to perform community service. If each completes the terms of probation successfully, the charge will be dismissed and removed from their criminal record.
While there were occasions when others involved in this young boy’s life could have shortened the period of abuse, educators and other mandated reporters are involved in the lives of children every day. The law mandates they report if they have reasonable cause to suspect abuse. Please, if abuse is suspected, report it. If it does not appear the abuse is alleviated, report it again. One cannot assume issues have been addressed. If a mandated reporter’s concerns are “he’s afraid of his step-mom” and “he might be better in a shelter”. Report it again. Educators are often the only line of defense against the atrocious acts of a child’s caregiver. Also, reporting it to a supervisor in the organization does not relieve the mandated reporter from reporting to DHHS.
Prosecution in this situation was, at least in part, to create awareness of and emphasize the importance of the mandated reporting requirement. It appears that has been accomplished as it has been reported the number of calls to DHHS has increased locally and training on these issues has increased in our local schools.
To report suspected child abuse, call 855-444-3911. Someone does not have to be a mandated reporter to report suspected abuse. This is also the same number to report elder abuse, either physical or financial.
Michigan’s Child Protection Law (MCL 722.621, et. seq.; found here: https://www.michigan.gov/documents/DHS-PUB-0003_167609_7.pdf) requires certain individuals to report information to the Department of Health and Human Services if child abuse is suspected.
Pertinent parts of that law state in section 3 (emphasis added):
A physician, dentist, physician’s assistant, registered dental hygienist, medical examiner, nurse, person licensed to provide emergency medical care, audiologist, psychologist, marriage and family therapist, licensed professional counselor, social worker, licensed master’s social worker, licensed bachelor’s social worker, registered social service technician, social service technician, a person employed in a professional capacity in any office of the friend of the court, school administrator, school counselor or teacher, law enforcement officer, member of the clergy, or regulated child care provider who has reasonable cause to suspect child abuse or neglect shall make immediately, by telephone or otherwise, an oral report, or cause an oral report to be made, of the suspected child abuse or neglect to the department. Within 72 hours after making the oral report, the reporting person shall file a written report as required in this act. If the reporting person is a member of the staff of a hospital, agency, or school, the reporting person shall notify the person in charge of the hospital, agency, or school of his or her finding and that the report has been made, and shall make a copy of the written report available to the person in charge. A notification to the person in charge of a hospital, agency, or school does not relieve the member of the staff of the hospital, agency or school of the obligation of reporting to the department as required by this section. One report from a hospital, agency, or school shall be considered adequate to meet the reporting requirement. A member of the staff of a hospital, agency, or school shall not be dismissed or otherwise penalized for making a report required by this act or for cooperating in an investigation.
Michael J. Sepic
Berrien County Prosecuting Attorney