Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. To learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column, click here.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: How did a system – and a community – fail a boy so completely?

Long after the fact, little Wyatt’s neighbors told police that his parents treated him like “crap.”

They said his parents strapped the boy – then 5 – to his bed with ropes and belts, face down, locked in his room. The boy made the “most eerie scream you could hear,” one neighbor said. When he cried, his father and stepmother would shout at him to stop, and “spank him, hit him, and throw him against the bed.” The boy seemed to be “suffering from starvation and hadn’t eaten in, like, forever.”

This account comes from the investigative report prepared by Post Falls Police Detective John Mason. The interviews with neighbors involve events that occurred about a year before Wyatt showed up suffering near-fatal injuries in a Spokane hospital. His father, Melvin Bledsoe, 27, and his stepmother, Joy Tamika Anderson, 30, are facing felony charges stemming from the abuse and awaiting trial in jail.

In the report, Mason takes the slightly unusual step, for a formal court record, of referring to the boy on a couple of instances as “little Wyatt,” as if to emphasize his powerlessness in the face of the abuse that he’s suffered.

In Mason’s interviews, the two neighbors – who lived near the family in the Willow Creek Trailer Park in Rathdrum and visited them frequently – said they witnessed Bledsoe and Anderson slap and spank Wyatt, strike him with his closed fists, hit him on the side of the head and throw him into the wall.

One woman said she would sometimes try to say hi to the boy when he was tied up, but he would “kind of clam up like I wanna say hi but I can’t say hi because I’ll get into trouble.”

She said Anderson told her the boy was not in school because “he’s retarded.” She told police that her “heart breaks for (the boy) and his situation.”

There is no indication of whether these neighbors alerted anyone about this at the time.

—-

More than two years ago, Bledsoe and Anderson stayed with a woman for about a week with their kids. Wyatt was 4 years old at the time.

This woman said she had seen Anderson “beat the shit out of (the boy), literally throw him and beat him on the bed.” Anderson would double up her fists, this woman said, “and just pound on his butt, his back, anything she could hit.”

She said that Anderson gave the boy Clonidine, a drug used to treat attention-deficit disorder that police describe as having similar effects to an opioid. Most of the time they were staying with her, the woman said, the boy was “drugged, lying flat on his face on the bed.”

She said Anderson would say, “Oh, he runs into walls … he falls down stairs … he fell off his bed … he did it to himself.”

There is no indication in the report that this woman notified anyone of her concerns. It’s possible she did, just as it’s possible that one or both of the neighbors from the Post Falls trailer park did so. Neither the police nor the prosecutor returned calls seeking information about past reports, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare doesn’t make any information about referrals or cases public, for many good reasons.

But in the case of little Wyatt, it’s clear that the degree of abuse was sustained and horrific, and the protective response from the adults around the boy was deeply insufficient. One doesn’t have to be looking for simplistic scapegoats to note the fact that somehow, in the face of extreme abuse, the formal systems and informal networks of adults orbiting this boy’s life did not manage to intervene.

At least until Wyatt showed up at the hospital in October, his body bearing gruesome testimony to years of abuse.

—-

Wyatt was gravely ill at the time; his parents took him to Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene, and after an initial examination, he was flown to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center for surgery. His pancreas had been split in two, the result of a blunt-force trauma similar in force to a car crash, a nurse practitioner who examined the boy wrote. That potentially fatal injury had occurred five to seven days earlier, and the delay caused the boy to “suffer greatly,” the nurse wrote.

The injury seems to be the result of Anderson stepping on the boy’s stomach while ordering him to stop crying.

Anderson weighs about 235 pounds, police reports say.

The boy weighs well under 50.

Beyond the boy’s “pancreatic laceration,” his body displayed “a constellation of injuries that are consistent with severe physical abuse and neglect,” the nurse practitioner wrote.

A litany of these injuries, which covered a “majority” of the boy’s body and were in various states of healing, seems practically without end: Abrasions scabbing on his hip and rear end. Injuries along his spine. Several circular wounds that appeared “fresh,” with one apparent “gouge.” Healing and scarring injuries on a bicep. Scabbing on his genitals. A “cauliflower” ear.

It goes on and on.

Wyatt had also “hepatic steatosis, which is a condition seen in children with severe cases of starvation.”

It appeared he had eaten part of a pillow, because he was hungry.

Anderson is charged with injury to a child, among other counts, and is being held on $75,000 bond. Bledsoe is charged with two counts of injury to a child, plus cruelty to children, and is held on $200,000. They are half-siblings, prosecutors say, and were living as a couple; they have also been charged with incest.

To read the investigative records in their case is to be left certain that these people should never have been responsible for the lives of children – ever, in any capacity.

And to read them is to grieve for little Wyatt’s suffering, and to despair about the worst possibilities of human nature. But it makes you wonder: What did anyone else do for him? Who stepped in to protect him? If the people raising him were, as the allegations suggest, simply monsters, where were the responsible adults – not just the systems of law enforcement and child safety, but the ordinary everyday adults? The neighbors who visited and saw what they saw?

The answers are not clear. There was, police reports indicate, one “current” case involving the family with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. It refers to only one other such referral, from 2012.

Perhaps there was an active effort – from neighbors or social services workers or police – to protect the boy from the people who were so grossly failing their responsibility to protect him.

But it doesn’t seem like it. The abuse of little Wyatt did not start six months ago. It did not start a year ago, back when the neighbors at the trailer park saw so much of it, or two years ago, when they stayed at the home of the other friend.

It went back and back – all the way to the boy’s infancy.

—-

On March 10, 2012, little Wyatt was taken to Kootenai Medical Center for serious facial and neck injuries. He was 9 months old.

“I noticed Wyatt’s face,” the investigating officer wrote. “It had an obvious hand print on his left cheek. I was amazed at the clarity of the finger outlines on his tiny cheek.”

At this time, Anderson was married to someone else, and Bledsoe was staying with them, along with his infant son. The night before, Anderson and Bledsoe had gone out drinking, and Bledsoe came home blackout drunk, police reports say.

The next morning, around 7, the baby cried and woke up his dad. Police gathered an account of what happened next from another child living in the home, a 9-year-old boy. The boy told police that he heard Bledsoe screaming at the infant, saying “bad words.” Then he heard several loud slaps, as many as 10, and little Wyatt began screaming even harder, he said.

The officer asked the boy how intensely and quickly the slaps came, and the boy demonstrated: He “stretched his arms out as far as he could reach to his side and got a frown on his face and brought his hands together in front of him and slapped them together with all his might,” the officer wrote. “After the impact, he quickly put his hands between his legs and bent down in pain.”

Bledsoe was convicted of abuse in that case. Between then and now lies a sea of murky questions. He regained custody of his child, obviously. He and Anderson, his half-sister, began living together, and prosecutors allege they were living as husband and wife – leading to the incest charge.

And a number of people were witnesses to some of the worst abuse imaginable, a pattern of disgusting, persistent, deeply routinized cruelty. The people who did it should pay a high, lifelong price.

But the more difficult issue, looking back and looking forward, is how the community responds when kids are in the care of people who hurt them. What happened between the two hospital visits – the one where 9-month-old Wyatt appeared with a hand-print on his cheek and the one where 6-year-old Wyatt appeared with a split pancreas and a body covered with injuries?

Who knew what was going on a year, or two years, or three years or four years before that?

Who stepped in to protect him?

Can it really be that the answer is: No one?

More from this author