When trauma therapist Elaine Beckwith was hired in early 2003 to provide counseling to a 10-year-old boy who had come to live with a warm-hearted Wellington couple, she knew he had been the victim of physical and sexual abuse.
But, for roughly seven months as the boy and the couple’s own son spun out of control, she had no idea about the depths of depravity the youth had suffered or what a danger he posed to the well-meaning family.
“I had been placing call after call after call for background history,” Beckwith told a Palm Beach County jury Friday as part of a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the Florida Department of Children & Families. “I had no information. I was piecing this together and as I’m piecing this together we’re having crisis after crisis after crisis. I felt like a hamster on a wheel.”
Neither the boy’s main DCF caseworker nor counselors at two other agencies the state hired to provide therapy to the youth told her that the boy, Jerald, had been sexually and physically abused since he was 18 months old, that he had tried to kill himself and others, had molested his younger sister and heard voices commanding him to do bad things.
So, when the couple’s son began acting out, she said she thought it was just normal sibling rivalry.
It wasn’t until much later when, in a moment of anger, the couple’s son, Junior, blurted out that Jerald had sexually assaulted him that she realized the folly of her and the couple’s hope of turning the youth into a loving child.
“It was like a lightbulb went off,” Beckwith said. Junior’s transformation from an obedient, friendly child into an overweight youngster full of rage and self-loathing finally made sense, she said. He exhibited all the textbook signs of being a victim of sexual assault, she said.
Beckwith’s disturbing recitation of the roughly two years she spent counseling Jerald and, ultimately Junior, was used to shore up claims by Junior’s father that DCF and Camelot Community Care are responsible for the emotional scars that will haunt his now 19-year-old son for the rest of his life. Had workers warned him and his late wife of the demons that haunted Jerald, they would have never taken the filthy, malnourished, but engaging, neighborhood kid into their home after his mother was declared unfit to raise him.
Boy’s and Girls Town of South Florida, once known as Father Flanagan’s Boys Home, also provided services to Jerald and were part of the lawsuit. It reached a confidential settlement with Junior and his father before the trial began this week.
The Palm Beach Post is not revealing the full names of the father and his son or Jerald’s last name because of the nature of the allegations. It is the newspaper’s policy not to identify victims of sexual assault.
Camelot and DCF are expected to challenge Beckwith’s version of events when they question her Monday. During opening statements Wednesday, an attorney representing Camelot suggested that Beckwith violated professional standards by counseling Jerald without knowing about his background.
Beckwith said it isn’t unusual for DCF to be loath to share information. “It’s always extremely difficult to get records from DCF,” said Beckwith, who is certified to contract with the state agency to provide mental health services to its clients.
Further, she said, it would be unethical for her not to counsel Jerald. “I took the case and ethically I had to begin working with him to determine where he was psychologically.”
And, she said, as she peeled back the layers and he began acting out the sexual aggression he had learned so well, it became clear he was extremely disturbed and needed to be placed in residential treatment. However, as a ward of the state, it was up to DCF, not her, to make that call. For whatever reason, agency officials refused to remove him from the couple’s home.
In fact, in a particularly cruel move, she said, the agency cut off services. Afraid the boy they loved like a son would be lost to them forever, the couple began taking classes to help Jerald deal with his demons and agreed to be legally designated as his “long-term non-relative placement,” said attorney Stephan LeClainche, who represents Junior and his father.
However, when his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the father decided they could no longer pursue that course and alerted DCF. Instead, without the couple’s knowledge, DCF went to court and got the designation anyway. For months after the designation, Beckwith said, she was unable to provide services to Jerry, Junior or the couple.
Meanwhile, she said, facing the looming loss of his mother, who died in December 2006, Junior struggled further. But, she rejected the suggestion that his mother’s death, not the sexual assault by Jerald, pushed Junior over the edge.
Jerald’s continued presence in the home exacerbated Junior’s emotional ills. “It got in the way of him addressing his feelings (about his mother),” she said.