A Child's Death Too Brutal For State To Escape Scrutiny

Posted: August 07, 1988

EVERETT, Wash. — After kicking his son Eli in the stomach and beating him with a belt, Darren Creekmore left the whimpering 3-year-old boy wedged in a toilet bowl.

Hours later, when the father finally allowed Eli to be taken to a hospital, doctors cut open the child's swollen belly and discovered that his lower intestine was ruptured. He died that day, Sept. 27, 1986.

Unlike most of the more than 1,000 children who are killed in this country each year by their parents or guardians, Eli Creekmore did not fade quickly

from memory. In fact, the state of Washington has not been the same since he died.

His death was especially horrifying because doctors, relatives, day-care staff, police and social workers had known that the boy regularly was severely beaten. The tragedy shocked the state and spurred widespread changes in the handling of child-abuse cases.

"I hope he didn't die in vain," said Eli's grandmother, Myrna Struchen. ''It doesn't look like he did."

In a major shift, state law now gives greater weight to protecting children's lives than to preserving their families. Now, the approval of a committee is required before a social worker may return an abused child to the parents. And laws against child-abusers who kill have been toughened.

"Even today, when we're making policy decisions, we screen them in terms of: Would this have saved Eli?" said Katharine H. Briar, recently appointed to lead the state Children, Youth and Family Services Division.

The main criticism of the changes is that they do not go far enough.

"Their strategy," Seattle social worker Bob Dahlstrom said of politicians and bureaucrats, "is to find something that doesn't cost very much, that's going to cover their butts."

Eli Creekmore's death also gave a boost to the Children's Initiative, a proposal calling on Washington legislators to add $360 million a year to children's programs or to put the issue to a popular vote next year.

"We've done the easy things," said Jon LeVeque, campaign chairman for the initiative. "In contrast, we have not in a concerted way devoted ourselves to the job of preventing child abuse or treating its victims."

Increased spending is not always the answer.

"Common sense, if they'd used it, wouldn't have cost any money," Struchen said. "It wouldn't have cost a damn dime."

In 1986, Eli Creekmore was one of nearly 1,200 children across the country who were killed by their relatives or guardians - 27 of them in Washington, 44 in Pennsylvania - according to the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse.

Not all deaths of children grab headlines and hearts.

In Washington - and in Philadelphia as well - dozens of children have died of abuse without public outcry or demands by child-welfare and political leaders for change.

But Eli Creekmore was different.

The boy was handsome and photogenic. He lived and died in Everett, 25 miles north of Seattle and so within the major state media market.

Although many people knew he was being abused, nobody stopped it. And his grandmother carefully recorded with a camera the months of abuse the child endured.

"It was a tragedy that happened in front of everybody," said Patrick Gogerty, executive director of a Seattle children's therapy program called Childhaven.

The horror began when Darren Creekmore finished a Kansas prison sentence for an assault conviction and joined his son Eli, then 2, and wife Mary, a part-time telephone company employee in Everett.

Soon, the child's maternal grandmother, Struchen, noticed that Eli frequently was bruised. She began to take color snapshots to document the abuse - many of the more than 100 photos show Eli smiling despite his black- and-blue arms, legs and face.

Struchen reported the abuse to Child Protective Services (CPS), the state agency that, like the Department of Human Services in Philadelphia, is responsible for protecting children who have been abused.

Ken and JoAnn Lechner, who ran a day-care center where Eli stayed, said they called CPS 15 times.

Eli's parents denied that the boy, their only child, was being abused. They said he bruised himself because he was clumsy. A state-appointed psychiatrist who examined Eli concluded that the boy was lying when he said his father beat him.

On July 18, 1986, Eli's third birthday, Struchen took him to get ice cream at a cafe. Waitress Glenda Jensen watched as the boy put some ice cream in his mouth, winced and pulled out the spoon. It was bloody.

Jensen reported the incident to two police officers and Eli was taken to an Everett hospital, where a doctor noted that the boy had "raccoon eyes" - circular facial bruises that can indicate a fractured skull.

The doctor warned Eli's social worker not to return the boy home but, despite two assault charges against Darren Creekmore for injuries to his son, Eli was sent home.

It was there that his father, who had been trained in martial arts, fatally kicked Eli in the stomach because he was crying, according to testimony at his trial.

Mary Creekmore testified that she was too scared of her husband to take Eli to the hospital. The child lay moaning in his bedroom for at least four hours before a friend insisted that he get treatment.

The jury took less than three hours to convict Darren Creekmore of second- degree murder. Mary, sentenced to 10 months for failing to help her son, later filed for divorce. She noted, without elaboration, "The parties have no dependent children."

An internal investigation by the state blamed Eli's death on a lack of communication within the child-welfare system, as well as poor judgment by the caseworker, who was reassigned to another unit of the department but not disciplined.

Emboldened by the public outcry over the case, legislators and state officials made changes.

Before Eli Creekmore's death, state law required caseworkers to both protect the child and preserve the family - sometimes contradictory goals. Pennsylvania law is similar.

Now Washington law gives greater weight to protection of the child.

Also, a committee of representatives from law enforcement, counseling, education and other fields must approve the return home of an abused child.

Washington developed a new method of determining the risk families posed to abused children. A new category of first-degree murder was created to allow tougher penalties in cases where an abused child dies.

After state social workers held protest rallies outside their offices to demand more staff, $5 million was added to the budget, in part to hire 40 social workers, and requirements for the job were raised.

The state education system also got involved by teaching students about sexual and physical abuse. Some schools began day-care centers to encourage teen mothers to finish school.

Parents-rights groups have objected to the direction Washington has taken, contending that the state can too easily intrude in their personal lives. But many people involved in the child-welfare system applaud the actions taken after Eli Creekmore's death.

The state officials who run the child-welfare system call for major changes in the future.

"We are closing some gaps in a system that needs to be overhauled," said Briar, a former social-work professor who had been a critic of the department she now runs.

The changes have caused some problems. Because the revised laws made it easier to remove children from their parents, the number of foster-care cases has grown. Legislators initially added no money for more foster homes, however, and cut funding for some foster children.

"Without the alternative resources, we are reluctant to take kids out of situations that are bad and put them in a situation that is worse," Dahlstrom said. "We will pay more to kennel a dog than to take care of these kids. It's absolutely disgusting."

Perhaps the most powerful legacy of Eli Creekmore's death, said Ginna Owens, head of the Snohomish County Office of Children's Affairs, in Everett, is that "it helped raise the awareness about kids."

So, when a name was being sought for a new Childhaven center for abused children, the choice was easy.

Myrna Struchen was there Dec. 1 when officials unveiled the plaque bearing the name and likeness of her grandson Eli, smiling, unbruised, wearing a sailor suit. The plaque bore the words That all children may have happy tomorrows.

"It was overwhelming," Struchen said. "I just wanted to take him out of that picture. I wanted to start all over again."

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