For two years, this boy bravely came to school, despite the endless torment that he was facing at home. Eventually, he was discovered close to death next to a railway track, weighing as much as a child half his age. And now his teachers are facing jail. Were they guilty of allowing this horrible tragedy to unfold?
Child abuse is one of the very worst horrors to afflict the industrialized world. In the United States today, in fact, more than 6.6 million children are investigated by protection services every year. And each year on average some 1,500 children lose their lives as a direct result of abuse.
According to statistics, the vast majority of this abuse takes place in the home, with a staggering 80 percent of these deaths being caused by a parent. Because of this, many suffering children rely on other adults to notice their plight. Sometimes, however, that is not as easy as it sounds.
On August 11, 2016, a railroad worker in Galien Township, Michigan, made a startling discovery. There, on the tracks near the border with Indiana, was a 12-year-old boy. He had apparently fled from his nearby home the previous night.
It was immediately clear that something was wrong. The boy was taken to Lakeland Hospital in Niles, MI, where doctors apparently found him to be in a terrible state. Reports claimed that the boy was severely emaciated and was suffering from dehydration and malnutrition.
The boy was apparently so thin that his ribs could be seen protruding beneath his skin. Worse still, there was reportedly a burn from a cigarette on his back. He is also said to have had a cut lip and to have weighed just 47 pounds. Furthermore, he had a shocking story to tell.
According to Fox17, a local West Michigan and Grand Rapids news station, the boy told police that he had left home because he “was tired of living like a dog.” He reportedly did not believe that he would even live long enough to turn 13 if he stayed.
Before his decision to run away, the boy had been one of five children living with his father, Aaron Zemke, and stepmother, Alicia. Prior to 2014, he was in foster care, for reasons that are currently unclear. In January of that year, however, he was sent back to his father’s home.
When the boy was discharged from foster care, he was recorded as weighing a relatively healthy 67 pounds. So something drastic had clearly happened to him during the 19 months that he’d spent living at his father’s house. Suspecting abuse, the authorities subsequently arrested Aaron and Alicia and sent them to Berrien County jail.
The boy thankfully seemed to recover quickly. According to the authorities, he began putting on weight immediately after his rescue and went on to gain some 30 pounds. Eventually, he and his siblings – including a child that Alicia gave birth to in jail – were placed with Child Protection Services.
On September 27, 2016, the boy testified at a preliminary hearing. According to his statement, his father and stepmother had starved and beaten him, including using a broom and a belt buckle to strike him in the head and face. He also claimed that food in their home was kept under lock and key.
The boy went on to state that Aaron and Alicia often refused to feed him, telling him that he had arrived too late for meals. He claimed that he was consequently forced to survive on a diet of rancid canned beans. Although his parents sometimes allowed him to have water, the boy said, he was soon pushed to the brink of starvation.
On January 23, 2017, Aaron stood in court and pleaded no contest to charges of first-degree child abuse. Just the week before, Alicia had done the same, avoiding charges of domestic abuse, assault and witness intimidation in return. Both were eventually sentenced to between 20 and 80 years in jail.
And that seemingly was the end of this tragic tale. On May 18, however, staff at an elementary school in Three Oaks, MI, received a startling message. Four of their employees were apparently now facing charges for failing to protect the boy while he was a pupil at the school.
During the initial investigation, it was alleged that staff at the school had likely noticed evidence of the boy’s mistreatment but had failed to notify the proper authorities. According to prosecutors, factors such as the boy’s weight and behavior should have been evident to the adults responsible for his care.
As a result, the school’s principal, Heidi Clark, was charged with failing to report suspected child abuse or neglect. Additionally, counselor Matt Cook, teacher Sherrie Bender and special education teacher Diane Balling all found themselves facing the same charges.
In each case, the charges related to two instances, in 2015 and 2016 respectively. If convicted, the defendants could face up to 186 days in jail. On May 26, however, superintendent Will Kearney of the River Valley School District released a statement that appeared to contradict the prosecutors’ claims.
In it he stated that school staff had reported the abuse as early as December 2015. However, he claimed that the relevant authorities informed them that no further action was to be taken at that time. He also went on to point out that the school’s policy was to always report any signs of abuse.
Today the four members of staff are still awaiting the judge’s decision in this tragic case. While the educators have seen supporters come forward in their defense, their ultimate fate will nonetheless rest in the hands of the court. It’s hoped, meanwhile, that the boy at the center of the drama will recover well and go on to lead a normal life.
Although the guilt of all those involved has yet to be decided, the moral of this story is clear. When it comes to suspected child abuse, it’s impossible to be too cautious. Hopefully, with due vigilance, we can begin to reduce the horrifying statistics that show just how many children are still suffering in today’s world.