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Father in prison, mother searching for an answer for brain-damaged son

TAMPA — She took her baby to Target that morning. He was happy and alert, wide-eyed as she pushed him through the food aisles. Graham was 3 months old, just starting to grasp his stuffed bunny with both hands. The date was April 1, 2005. That afternoon, Susan Martin Warren handed off Graham and her older son to their father, Tom. Susan, now 36, had to work that evening; she was a family resource coordinator at University Community Hospital, talking to new parents about raising healthy children. Tom had quit his job as a financial analyst at Coca-Cola when Graham was born. Now he had an office in the family's home in Wesley Chapel, where he did accounting for private clients and looked after the boys. Just before 9 p.m., Tom called Susan's office. "Don't come home," she remembers him telling her. "The paramedics are here. We're on our way to the hospital. Something's wrong with Graham."

She met the ambulance outside the emergency room and lifted her pale son from his car seat. His legs seemed rigid, Susan said. His eyes were glassy.

"He wasn't crying," she said. "It was more of a moan." In more than a decade working with babies, Susan had never heard an infant moan.

She kept asking Tom, "What happened?" He didn't know. He had no idea.

In the crowded emergency room, they waited 20 minutes. Graham's breathing was irregular. He seemed to be slipping in and out of consciousness.

A terrible question came to her. She knew the answer had to be no, but she had to ask. "Please, tell me this wasn't something you did," she said to her husband.

He told her, "No. Absolutely not."

Doctors did a spinal tap. The left side of Graham's brain was bleeding; blood vessels behind his eyes were torn. They did emergency surgery, removing part of his skull in an attempt to stop the bleeding.

Your son could die, doctors told Susan and Tom. They signed a "do not resuscitate" order. In the sterile dimness of the hospital waiting room, they prayed together.

• • •

When a baby comes into the hospital with a brain injury, the law requires child abuse workers to investigate. As soon as Graham pulled through the three-hour surgery, detectives came to the hospital and talked to Susan and Tom.

Again, Tom said he didn't know what had happened.

The detectives went to the Warrens' home and talked to their 3-year-old son who was in the care of an aunt. The boy had been in the room that night, in his toddler bed, beside Graham's crib.

He told detectives his daddy had gotten mad because his brother wouldn't stop crying. He had seen his daddy make fists and hit inside the crib.

When the detectives confronted Tom, he admitted he'd been frustrated with the baby. He had smashed his hands into the crib, he said. But he had never touched Graham.

"We were all trying to wrap our heads around that," Susan said. "Could hitting a mattress cause that type of injury?" She doubted it, but didn't know what to believe.

Graham had been in the hospital five days when a doctor called Susan and Tom into his office.

He showed them a scan of their son's brain. The left half was black. An artery in his neck had been severed. Graham would probably never progress beyond the stage of an infant.

There was no question in his mind, the doctor told Tom and Susan. Their baby had been shaken. Badly.

Susan was familiar with the syndrome. She warned new parents about it all the time, as part of her job. She kept a box of pamphlets about it in her car.

And she and Tom had talked about it a lot.

• • •

Susan Martin Warren stayed with her husband that night, stayed as investigators closed in, even stayed after they charged Tom with a felony for a crime so violent that it destroyed half their son's brain.

And she didn't just stay; for almost a year she tried to understand him, went with him to counseling, tried to find a way to keep Dad around in spite of what he apparently had done.

Some people around her questioned this. But as a Christian, she believed that her marriage vows were binding. Besides, she needed Tom — needed his income, his help with the house. Now she would need his help with Graham. She didn't want the boys, especially the older one, to feel that she was sending Daddy away.

"Maybe part of it was denial," she said. "But my main focus was on how to help my son — and salvage our family."

But what the doctors said about Graham was true for Susan, too. She had suffered the kind of injury that heals only so much.

• • •

Susan met Tom in 1995 at the University of South Florida, where they were both studying anthropology. She was 24, working toward her master's degree. He was 38, "starting over."

His wife had died. He was raising their 9-year-old son.

"We connected intellectually," Susan said. He was a Christian believer too, and he seemed somehow vulnerable, as if he needed her. Three months after they met, they got engaged.

The honeymoon was brief. Three months after they were married, his car was repossessed. She found out he owed $60,000 in student loans and credit cards.

There was more. One of his friends let slip that he had a criminal record. Susan learned that he had four felony convictions for writing worthless checks and committing fraud and grand larceny and violating probation. He hadn't mentioned that he had served more than a year in prison a few years before they met.

"I left, when I learned that," Susan said. But she gave him a second chance. "For two months, we went to counseling. I really thought people could change."

They bought a house and a car — in her name. Their first son was born in 2002, the second, Graham, three years later. (Tom's son went to live with Tom's parents.) Susan went back to work when Graham was only 5 weeks old. Tom's accounting practice was just getting started.

"We needed the money," she said.

• • •

Two weeks after Susan scooped her baby out of the ambulance, she carried him home and tucked him into his crib. Though she now believed Graham had been shaken, probably by Tom, she didn't focus on her anger.

"At that point, it was about my child," she said. She started trying to figure out how to get therapy for Graham. She talked to doctors and nurses and studied brain injuries on the Internet.

Tom had other concerns, she said. Without telling Susan, he took $2,500 her grandmother had given her and hired a defense attorney.

Because of the police investigation, a judge had ordered that Tom couldn't live in the house with Graham. He moved into his mother's mobile home.

Two months after Graham went to the hospital, Tom was charged with aggravated child abuse.

Tom turned himself in.

Susan bailed him out.

"I needed him working," she said.

All that summer and fall, they continued counseling. She pressed him to acknowledge what he had done. If he seemed sorry, she thought, she might be able to forgive him. But she said he denied that Graham was even hurt. He'll be fine, Tom said.

The more Tom did that, and the more Susan had to deal with Graham's injuries, the angrier she became. At the end of that awful year, she said she wanted a divorce. "I was looking for a confession from him, an 'I'm sorry,' " she said. "But it was all about what the system was doing to him."

• • •

Doctor appointments and therapy sessions. Counseling and court dates. Susan was tangled in a web of criminal, divorce and child custody cases, each one somehow affecting the next.

Tom was allowed to see their older son once a week, unsupervised. He could see Graham for an hour at a time, but only if Susan or another approved adult was present.

She was so busy being both parents to her boys she didn't have time to be angry at Tom, she said.

Mostly, she just wanted everything to be over by the time the kids were old enough to understand.

She told their toddler, "Daddy had to move out of the house because some people think Daddy had something to do with Graham's 'owie' on his head."

She called the scar above Graham's ear "his little rainbow." Someday, Susan wrote in an e-mail to her friends, Graham "will need an explanation for why he is different."

She asked them to pray for a speedy trial.

• • •

By June of this year, Susan was still in limbo. She still wasn't divorced. Tom owed her $10,000 in child support.

His trial had been rescheduled four times and was now set for August.

No one, it seemed, ever asked about Graham. All these lawyers were taking depositions, doctors were giving testimony, specialists and consultants and detectives were defending him.

But no one, not even his dad, she said, asked how he was doing.

The week before Tom's trial, Susan had to take Graham's MRIs to the state attorney. She led her young son into the office and showed the prosecutor that Graham has learned to talk. With a brace on his right leg, he can walk with a limp. He has figured out how to use his left hand to open the gnarled fingers on his right.

Cognitively, he's at the low end for his age group. It's unclear whether he'll ever be able to read, or whether his vision problems will keep him from driving.

Still, Graham had progressed beyond everyone's expectations. Susan thought the prosecutor should know, before they went to court.

• • •

The trial began Aug. 6. Wearing black pumps and pearls, looking tired yet determined, Susan answered attorneys' questions about the day her world fell apart.

One angry instant caused a lifetime of problems, she told the jury: "Pathways in his brain have been severed and will never be able to be repaired."

• • •

Tom wore a gray suit. He's 51 now, and he looked confident he could win the jury over. "I'm still looking for explanations," he told them, "as to how these injuries occurred."

Graham was crying that night, he said. He got frustrated. He bent over the crib and put both hands beside his baby and asked, "Grahamster, what's the matter, my little bear?"

Some doctors debunk Shaken Baby Syndrome, Tom and his lawyer said. Maybe Graham had a congenital defect. Maybe his mom hit his head on the car door.

"Graham's recovery has, luckily, exceeded all expectations," said Tom's lawyer, assistant public defender Dillon Vizcarra. "It could have been much, much worse."

Susan was sickened when she heard this. How could they use Graham's recovery as a reason not to punish Tom?

Vizcarra continued, arguing that Graham's improvement meant the case did not warrant such a serious charge.

The jury agreed. Five men and one woman found Tom guilty of child abuse, a lesser charge than aggravated child abuse, with a maximum sentence of five years. The judge sent Tom to prison for four and a half.

Susan's older son will be almost 11. Graham will be 8. She was hoping Tom would be locked away at least until they were teenagers.

• • •

After a bailiff took Tom's belt, after he handcuffed Susan's husband and escorted him out of court, she told her friends, "This feels like a sentence for me too." She feels she has a deadline — four years to get the divorce settled, to get custody squared away, "to prepare my boys for the world."

At least Tom is out of their lives for a while, her friends consoled her.

But Susan couldn't linger with them at the courthouse. She had to go pick up her boys. She had to figure out what to tell them about what happened to Daddy.

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825. Staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this story.

.fast facts

Shaken Baby Syndrome

For more information about shaken baby syndrome, go to:

• The Shaken Baby Alliance: www.shakenbaby.com,
toll-free 1-877-636-3727

• The Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida: www.ounce.org, (850) 921-4494

• The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome: www.dontshake.com,
toll-free 1-888-273-0071

Father in prison, mother searching for an answer for brain-damaged son 08/15/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 22, 2008 3:04pm]

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