Case puts child abuse prevention in spotlight
HEIDELBERG, Germany — “I am married with a beautiful baby. Who would have thought?” Jennifer Wickware wrote on her Facebook page.
Her baby was named Cordale and she called him “my little man.”
“He is now 8 pounds and five ounces!” she wrote of his first doctor’s visit. She started a photo album titled “the beginning of our Cordale.”
It was March 2010. The 21-year-old Texan, who had gone home to have her baby, was about to return to Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany, to rejoin her husband, an Air Force airman first class. She arrived in July with a 5-month-old and high hopes.
But “everything went wrong after she came back to Germany,” said Susanne Hardt, Wickware’s lawyer.
By October, Wickware’s baby was dead.
By March 2011, Air Force officials had charged her husband with murder. In May, Wickware was sentenced to five years in prison by a German court for failing to protect the infant.
According to authorities, Cordale, not yet 8 months old, died of brain trauma after being violently shaken; he also had other injuries that had previously gone undetected, including fractures to both arms and a leg.
How did these injuries go undetected? And why was Jennifer Wickware, whom authorities believe did not cause the injuries, or witness their infliction, sent to prison?
The horrific case and Wickware’s sentence underscore the difficulties in preventing child abuse deaths, and raise questions about who is responsible for sounding the alarm.
The family had not passed under the radar: Doctors, social workers and criminal investigators had been involved before Cordale’s death, according to German attorneys involved in the case.
An American pediatrician on base suspected the baby was being abused, yet a German pediatrician did not concur.
Despite growing awareness of child abuse, better medical diagnoses and agencies designed to protect children, detecting signs of abuse in infants and predicting how dangerous the abuse is can be difficult, experts say.
“It’s always, ‘You guys screwed up,’ ” said Teri Covington, director of the National Center for Child Death Review. “But it’s hard to predict; you just don’t know.”
After a joint German-U.S. Air Force investigation, German authorities, who have jurisdiction over U.S. civilians living in Germany, prosecuted Jennifer Wickware for neglect, negligence and maltreatment.
She pleaded guilty to the charges. She is to be a prosecution witness in her husband’s court-martial and declined to be interviewed.
The Air Force is prosecuting Horace Wickware. His court-martial is scheduled for Sept. 8. He is charged with murder, manslaughter, assault, negligent homicide and child endangerment.
This is not an isolated case. Of the 29 child fatalities in the military reportedly caused by neglect or abuse last year, 12 were infants, according to a Defense Department Family Advocacy Program report.
That’s in keeping with national statistics. More than 2,000 children in the U.S. die of child abuse and neglect each year, experts say, and the majority of them are babies and infants.
“The vast majority are under a year — usually 2 to 6 months,” Covington said. Infants are the most vulnerable for many reasons. “Obviously, they’re a lot easier to hurt.”
Often, infants go through a period of intense crying, when nothing will console them.
“Some parents just can’t handle it, especially young men,” Covington said. “It’s not, ‘I’m going to kill this baby.’ It’s, ‘I’m so pissed at this baby, I’m going to make it shut up.’ ”
It’s rare that both parents are guilty of fatal abuse, according to a U.S. Justice Department guide to child-abuse investigations. “Far more common is the situation in which one person is aware that another is abusing or neglecting a child, but fails to report the maltreatment or take steps to protect the child,” the guide says.
Spangdahlem’s Family Advocacy social workers were alerted to possible problems in the Wickware family in August last year after a base pediatrician noticed a second-degree burn on Cordale’s shoulder during a routine office visit.
The explanation for the burn, according to Trier prosecutor Jorn Patzek, who prosecuted Jennifer Wickware, was that her husband had accidentally burned Cordale during a bath. The explanation didn’t match the contours of the burn, Patzek said.
Family Advocacy talked with both parents and made a home visit, according to Patzek and Hardt.
Another home visit was scheduled for Sept. 2. That same day, Cordale was brought to the hospital in Wittlich, Germany, fatally injured with brain trauma.
Like other agencies, the Air Force’s Family Advocacy Program has a formula or matrix to determine how dangerous a situation is for a possibly abused child and how to proceed.
According to Covington, it’s one of the best there is. “We think it’s better than anything,” she said. The question to ask in cases of fatal child abuse in which authorities had previous contact with the family, she said, is, “Did the system follow its own criteria?”
Family Advocacy declined to comment on the case. But a USAFE spokesman said the case had shown no problems with Family Advocacy policies or procedures. “It’s being viewed as an isolated incident,” said Capt. Tristan Hinderliter, a USAFE spokesman.
Doctors at the Wittlich hospital had seen Cordale and did not diagnose abuse. One time, Hardt said, the doctor diagnosed a virus — and so that’s what Jennifer Wickware believed. “She knew something was wrong, but she didn’t know what it was,” her lawyer said.
But after the burn was discovered, pediatricians at the Wittlich hospital were asked to examine Cordale and determine whether he was being abused, Patzek said. The doctors decided that he was not.
Trier prosecutors are now investigating the pediatricians for possible wrongdoing, said lead prosecutor Juergen Brauer. If it’s determined that the doctors did not meet the standard of care, they could be subject to criminal charges, he said.
Injuries to infants are often difficult to detect without medical tests, experts say.
“They can only be detected with medical procedures such as X-rays, CT and MRI scans and the forensic autopsy,” according to the U.S. Justice Department guide to child abuse investigations.
“If you have a broken leg with an infant, it’s not that easy to find it out,” Hardt said, based on evidence presented in the trial. “If you go to the doctor after a week, for example, and he doesn’t move the leg (or take an X-ray), he wouldn’t realize it.”
If pediatricians didn’t realize Cordale was being abused, how was Jennifer Wickware supposed to know?
“The difference between the hospital in Wittlich and her is she’s the mother,” Patzek said. “The mother is so close to the baby. … You’re the mother. You know. And you’re obliged to do something.
“The burn — that’s what we were really holding against her,” Patzek said. “It was terrible, and it must have hurt the baby horribly, and she saw it, and she didn’t go to the doctor for two days.”
Patzek said he believes Wickware never witnessed Cordale being abused. She was unemployed, unlicensed to drive and financially dependent on her husband, who, Patzek said, dissuaded her from getting medical attention for Cordale.
“She always believed Horace. ‘Oh, that was an accident.’ Now she knows better,” Patzek said.
“We knew he tried to force her” not to take the baby to the doctor. “But still, the baby’s dead and the baby suffered. If she had taken the baby away, it would still be alive.”
She should have taken Cordale and gone home to Texas, he said, or asked Family Advocacy or Air Force police to help her.
In the U.S., women’s advocates and legal scholars say it’s unjust to prosecute women for being unable to control, escape or countermand an abusive mate.
“If the mother is being abused as well, or has little or no knowledge of the (child) abuse, there’s no issue,” said Scott Burns, spokesman for the National District Attorneys’ Association in Washington, D.C.
“On the other hand, if you have a mother that watches it day after day and does nothing, that’s a different story. Somewhere in the middle is where the tough calls come. … Prosecutors don’t want to re-victimize mothers,” he said. “Prosecutors want to hold the real guilty party accountable: the abuser.”
Laura Williams, who heads a nonprofit group that monitors family violence cases in Orange County, Fla., said that women there are not jailed for failing to protect children killed by a male partner.
Prosecutors will charge such women usually only if they refuse to cooperate, in order to pressure them to testify.
Covington agreed. If U.S. prosecutors go forward with a failure to protect charge against mothers, it’s a misdemeanor, she said. “They won’t do jail time.”
In Wickware’s case, Hardt said, she tried to explain her client’s “overwhelming situation.”
“She was alone in Germany. She had no friends,” Hardt said, adding that Wickware was emotionally abused. Her husband “ignored her and her wishes. If she said something, he makes her feel very stupid. She didn’t know what to do.”
Still, Patzek said Wickware’s punishment was just.
“It fits for what her failure was,” he said. “If she had been the actor, her sentence would have been a lot higher.”