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W.Va. child abuse case called extreme

February 09, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

Child abuse by foster parents is rare in the Tri-State area, officials said Tuesday.

Rarer still are cases with allegations as disturbing as those of an 8-year-old boy who alleged that he was intentionally burned with a cigarette lighter and tied up with duct tape in an attic of his foster parents' home last November, they said.

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"I don't recall an incident of this severity in Washington County recently," said Dave Engle, Department of Social Services director.

Bruce A. Hartman, 38, of Martinsburg, was charged with felony child abuse, according to court records.

A West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources caseworker told police the boy was burned on the side of his hand with a butane lighter to teach him a lesson about fire safety after the boy set fire to a tree fort, according to allegations contained in court records.

Department spokeswoman Ann Garcelon said state law prohibits her from discussing any specific aspects of alleged abuse and neglect involving foster child cases.

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"Generally, reports of abuse or neglect in foster homes most often would involve how the foster parent disciplined a child," Engle said.

Corporal punishment, or spanking, is not allowed in foster homes because the child frequently has gone there from an abusive atmosphere and was placed in foster care for protective shelter, Engle said.

A complaint of spanking probably would not result in the removal of the child from the foster home unless the foster parents refused to abide by that rule, Engle said.

If in imminent danger, a child is removed and placed with another foster family, he said.

"These kids, the trauma that they suffer is heart wrenching ... If they're abused and neglected by their own parents and then reinjured by a foster parent, they're just going to become more and more traumatized," Engle said.

Last year in Washington County, seven investigations were conducted into potential cases of child abuse in foster homes, according to the department. In each case there either wasn't evidence of maltreatment or wasn't enough information to indicate whether child abuse had occurred.

In 1997, one Washington County home was closed because of indicated neglect, according to the department. The department does not reveal details about specific cases.

There have been few reports of suspected abuse in Franklin County, Pa., foster homes, said Gordon Beckner, director of Franklin County Children and Youth Services.

Because Franklin County buys foster care services from private agencies, a state regional office - not the county agency - investigates suspected child abuse in foster homes, Beckner said. The private agencies are licensed and are required to screen foster parents.

There were 70 substantiated cases of physical or sexual abuse in Pennsylvania foster homes in 1997, said Jay Pagni, Department of Public Welfare spokesman. A breakdown by county was not available.

In most cases, the child would be removed from that foster care, Pagni said.

Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela Games-Neely said she only recalls two or three incidents of child abuse in foster homes during the last 10 years, but nothing as severe as the allegations in the recent case in Martinsburg.

"Most of the foster families are very good," Games-Neely said.

At least one of the other child abuse cases in a foster home had to do with discipline, but not spanking, Games-Neely said. She refused to discuss the details of that case.

When officials discover child abuse in a foster home, they act quickly.

"We're not going to tolerate it with a parent, why would we tolerate it with a foster parent?" Games-Neely said.

Foster parents in West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania have to go through criminal investigations, background checks and must receive training, officials said.

Engle said it's important to have as many foster homes available as possible because it improves the ability to match a child with suitable foster parents.

Some children are better off in homes with no other children so the parents can devote their attention to the foster child, he said.

Staff writer Bryn Mickle contributed to this story.

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