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Inside Dateline: When one suspects abuse

Dateline producer Susan Leibowitz: Most of us don't want to "tell."  If we're a neighbor, an ex-spouse, or an employee it is hard.  But, according to the experts, if we see something, most of the time there's much more going on behind closed doors. 

May 3, 2006 |

Suspecting abuse? To tell or not to tell (Susan Friedman, Dateline producer)

It was July 4th weekend of 2004. I was reading my local newspaper in my sunny Los Angeles backyard.  A tiny little one-paragraph story in New Mexico caught my eye. New Mexico stories always catch my eye.  I love the landscape, the colors, the big open sky. It was about a triple homicide on ABC newsman Sam Donaldson's ranch.  And after a few phone calls,  I quickly realized this could be much bigger than that tiny story.

In October of 2004 I decided to go to the preliminary hearing of the 14-year-old who'd been charged with 3 counts of murder in the deaths of his father, stepmother and stepsister. The courthouse was in Alamogordo, New Mexico... very close to the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was tested.  It was an eerie feeling, and as I drove down over the mountains into Alamogordo the white sand of the White Sands Missile Range stretched out just below.  I thought it must have snowed overnight.

Before the hearing, I went to Roswell and Hondo New Mexico to talk with the aunt and girlfriend of the 14-year-old. They both had tales to tell of abusive treatment of the boy by his father.  The aunt was the only one who was allowed to visit the child while he was locked up in a juvenile detention center awaiting trial.  The girlfriend received letters almost daily.  There were wonderful drawings of a child behind bars with big tears rolling down his face. They were the lonely letters of a boy longing for a family.

At the hearing the aunt pointed out various local folks who were simply there to support the boy and several she did not recognize. When I approached these people they were anxious to talk. One was a teacher. Two were mothers of friends. All gave me their phone numbers.  I went back up into the mountains. There were many stories of abuse, but no one I spoke with had actually seen the boy being abused.  Then someone told me she'd been to the dentist that day and talked with someone who saw the abuse.

I began looking for that woman. It took two more trips to find her.  Then it took alot more to convince her to tell her story on camera.  By then it was November 2005. 

In that space of a year, I continued to work the story in between other projects.  I spoke with a sheriff's assistant who now lived in Oklahoma.  I found pictures documenting the boy's physical abuse that were still in the file of an adjacent county. And I became convinced that this was an important story because of what the people in the community had in common with people everywhere, all over America: they said they had first-hand knowledge of abuse but felt helpless to do anything.  One man said he saw the accused as a baby beaten with a big, thick cowboy belt but didn't tell because the mother said she was getting a divorce and "telling" would only complicate matters.  Others who remembered seeing abuse said they didn't tell because they feared retaliation.  Still others worked for the father and worried about losing their jobs. 

Most of us don't want to "tell."  If we're a neighbor, an ex-spouse or an employee it is hard.  But, according to the experts, if we see something, most of the time there's much more going on behind closed doors.  Kids don't want to tell teachers or counselors.  It's painful and embarrassing, and besides, unless there are physical marks on a kid's body, what is abuse?

The story raised heart-breaking questions for all of us.  The trial that began in the middle of January 2006 put the spotlight on the questions.  Today, I think we're all still searching for the right answers.

This report, Cody's story, airs Dateline Saturday, 8 p.m. In a Dateline/Court TV exclusive, John Larson reports on the killings that took place on newsman Sam Donaldson's ranch in July 2004, and the ensuing trial that had the community impassioned.

For resources on reporting abuse, click on one of the following links: The National Center for Victims of Crime, The National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information, The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, U.S. Health and Human Services -- locator