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Originally published October 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 14, 2008 at 11:57 AM

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Starvation abuse rare, shocking even to experts

The intentional starving of a child is so rare — and its results so devastating — that even experts in the child-abuse field find it shocking.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The intentional starving of a child is so rare — and its results so devastating — that even experts in the child-abuse field find it shocking.

"This is one of the worst forms of child abuse we see," said Nancy Kellogg, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas. "The physical and emotional agony a child goes through is very severe and long-lasting."

Kellogg, who co-authored a study in 2005 about children who've been starved at home, said she doesn't know the details of the Carnation case and the 14-year-old victim, but has studied cases of starvation involving children ranging in age from 2 months to 13 years.

"It's worse than being a prisoner of war," Kellogg said. "When you're a prisoner of war, everybody around you is facing the same fate." In contrast, a starved child is often singled out from the family, and other children in the home may be "brainwashed" into believing the victim did something to deserve the punishment.

Kellogg said in cases she's seen, the youngster's "offense" could be something as innocent as reminding the abuser of something he or she doesn't want to think about.

"We had a case of a 4-year-old boy who was starved to death by his grandmother because he reminded her of her son," Kellogg said. In another case, a woman refused to feed her 8-year-old stepdaughter because the woman was jealous of her husband's former wife.

In the Carnation case, the victim's father, Jon Pomeroy, and stepmother, Rebecca Long, have been charged with criminal abuse.

Dee Wilson, a University of Washington social-work lecturer who trains child-abuse and -neglect investigators, said in more than 30 years of practice, he's seen only a handful of cases involving deliberate, long-term withholding of food or water.

"This is a very extreme form of mistreatment, not your day-in-and-day-out form of child abuse," Wilson said.

In July 2007, a Spokane-area woman, Carole Ann DeLeon, was sentenced to six years in prison in the death of her adopted son, Tyler, who weighed 28 pounds when he died on his 7th birthday.

Earlier this year, a Snohomish County judge compared the photos of an emaciated 4-year-old boy to those of prisoners taken at a concentration camp, and sentenced both the boy's father, Danny Abegg, and his girlfriend, Marilea Mitchell, to eight years in prison for criminal mistreatment of the child.

Prosecutors had sought sentences that were more than twice the standard sentencing range because of the vulnerability of the boy, who weighed 22 pounds in 2006 when authorities rushed him to the hospital after a relative called Child Protective Services.

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Wilson, while also not commenting directly on the Carnation case, said parents who withhold food and water from a child sometimes perceive themselves in a "power struggle" with the child.

"At some point, possibly the parents have thought, in some kind of crazy way, this was some type of appropriate punishment they ... adopt an extreme strategy, a strategy that begins to seem very much like torture."

Wilson said most children who are malnourished at home are the victims not of active abuse but of neglect, often involving parents who have mental-health issues, substance-abuse problems or simply lack money.

But in cases such as the one prosecutors allege in Carnation, "There's a different quality because ... it's so systematic and deliberate," Wilson said.

Kellogg said starvation victims such as the Carnation girl need far more than food and a safe environment to recover.

"Her ability to get through this and eventually maintain a healthy adult life will be greatly jeopardized," Kellogg said. "She is likely to need very intense counseling and help for a long time."

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com. Seattle Times staff reporter Christine Clarridge and news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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