Woman Charged In Case Of 'Atrocious' Child Abuse

Posted: March 26, 1994

Philadelphia police yesterday charged a North Philadelphia woman with aggravated assault and related crimes in what one official termed an ''atrocious" case of child abuse against a 2 1/2-year-old girl in her care.

In announcing the arrest of Cynthia Kettrles, 43, of the Cambridge Plaza housing project, Capt. Eileen Bonner said the toddler's injuries "were the worst I've ever seen" in the more than two years she has directed the Sex Crimes Unit, which investigates child-abuse cases.

Police allege that Kettrles held Sheila Wilson in scalding water, shook her, failed to feed her and repeatedly struck her, all during a period of at least two months before the child was taken to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on March 18. She was suffering from severe burns to her buttocks, genitals and left foot, as well as a lack of oxygen to her brain that might have been caused by a stroke.

Yesterday, physicians at Children's Hospital said Sheila is improving. She remains in the intensive care unit, but her condition has been upgraded from critical to fair. Doctors have not said what the child's long-term prognosis might be.

Sheila's mother, Sheila Bellmon, 31, is Kettrles' niece. While battling drugs more than a year ago, Bellmon left the little girl with Kettrles.

Yesterday, the child's father, Rodofis Wilson, said both he and Bellmon have been at Children's Hospital around the clock since Saturday.

"We have been going up (to her room) as often as possible and comforting her, rubbing her and talking to her," said Wilson, "and just loving her and letting her know that this is love now instead of the harsh treatment she has been receiving. I think this may be one of the reasons she is starting to respond."

Wilson, 56, of Fern Rock, said his daughter's burns looked like "someone

put two pounds of hamburger on her buttocks and on her foot and spread it all over."

He and Bellmon have had a relationship since around 1980 and are the parents of a 15-year-old son and another child of 16 months.

Wilson said that when Bellmon first left Sheila with Kettrles in late summer 1992, she intended to retrieve her after three days. But Kettrles, he said, would not let the child go and falsely claimed that the city's Department of Human Services had given her temporary custody.

Bellmon completed a six-month drug rehabilitation program in North Philadelphia, then renewed her effort to get Sheila back.

Neither he nor Bellmon, he said, had any idea their daughter was in danger.

"This was out-and-out blatant abuse," Wilson said. "(Kettrles) just sat her down in scalding water, and it seemed to me she just held her there. Any child - even an insect - springs out of scalding water unless you hold it down."

Capt. Bonner said the Sex Crimes Unit was notified March 18 by Children's Hospital that a young child had been admitted with injuries that were ''suspected child abuse."

A police investigation resulted in Kettrles' arrest at 12:30 a.m. yesterday, Bonner said. Two children, ages 11 and 7, also living in the apartment, have been removed and placed elsewhere, police said.

DHS officials said that Kettrles had been a DHS foster mother at one time, but that the agency had dropped her on April 28, 1988, after two children in her care received suspicious injuries.

In 1987, a 1-year-old boy suffered a dislocated shoulder and a fractured arm. A year later, a 2-year-old child Kettrles was trying to adopt was treated for burns to his buttocks, genitals and feet.

DHS Commissioner Joan Reeves said the agency had not been able to substantiate abuse in any of those cases but still decided to drop Kettrles as a foster parent.

"We just had some feelings that led us to close the foster home," Reeves said.

But police sources said yesterday that DHS had allowed Kettrles to proceed with the adoption of the burned 2-year-old, with the provision that she receive regular social work services in her home.

DHS closed its file on Kettrles on April 27, 1990, and a worker made the notation that Kettrles "appears to have good parenting skills."

She has continued to receive adoption subsidy payments from DHS, sources said.

Yesterday, police said no charges have been lodged against a North Philadelphia doctor who reportedly saw Sheila Wilson several hours before she was admitted to Children's Hospital. Kettrles brought the toddler to him for evaluation; he directed her to take the baby to the hospital.

Authorities said they are investigating why the doctor didn't call 911 for paramedics, report the incident to police or phone the state's child-abuse hotline, as required by state law when a doctor sees a case of suspected child abuse.

"We are investigating his participation in this incident," said Bill Davol, spokesman for the District Attorney's Office.

In addition to aggravated assault, Kettrles was charged with kidnapping, simple assault, recklessly endangering another person, false imprisonment, unlawful restraint and endangering the welfare of a child.

Kettrles, who is about 5 feet 10 and weighs about 180, was arraigned yesterday afternoon at the Police Administration Building. Bail Commissioner Frank J. Rebstock ordered Kettrles held on $250,000 bail, pending a further hearing Thursday in Family Court.

In a soft voice, Kettrles, who has no prior criminal record, told Rebstock she is on public assistance.

She said she has an attorney, Stephen H. Serota, who will be paid with donations from her church and her family.

Neighbors said Kettrles lives with her mother and two other children in an apartment on Cambridge Mall, a strip of two-story apartments running between two public housing high-rises known as Cambridge Plaza.

They said Kettrles and her mother, whom they call Miss Catherine, both took care of little Sheila. Several neighbors said the girl was always clean and well-dressed and that Kettrles and her mother seemed to take good care of her.

"I've never seen the baby with so much as a snotty nose," said Doris Chastine, who lives in the apartment next door. "She was always in pretty dresses, with socks that matched. She was a cocaine baby, so she was real small. Miss Catherine used to always say, 'You can't do anything but love her.' "

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