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Baby was abused, but who did it?

(ran ET edition of TAMPA & STATE)

Of this much authorities are certain: Someone horribly abused a 6-month-old Clearwater boy.

After that, only questions remain. And unless those questions can be answered, the welfare of a little boy, a licensed child-care operator, and all her prospective customers remains in jeopardy.

On March 26, the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services received a report that a 6-month-old boy had suffered fractures of his right thigh and right wrist. Child abuse investigators were asked to look into allegations that Irma Colindres, the boy's in-home child-care provider, had mistreated him.

Ordinarily, HRS' findings would have remained confidential. But the Pinellas County License Board, which licensed the day-care provider, asked Circuit Judge W. Douglas Baird to unseal the report. Baird agreed on Monday.

The investigation, which included information from HRS, the Child Protection Team and the Largo and Clearwater police departments, concluded that the boy had suffered serious abuse. But because authorities weren't sure who caused it, he remains at home with his mother and his child-care provider continues to hold a county license.

Gail Robertson, the licensing board's executive director, said she is not sure what her agency will do. The board could seek to revoke the day-care operator's license or place her on probation. At present, only one child is at the day-care operator's home.

But the decision will be difficult. A new state law that went into effect this year forbids HRS from naming suspected child abusers. All the agency can do is provide a detailed report to the license board and allow the board to arrive at its own conclusions.

"It's a big problem for us," Robertson said. "It's not our burden to determine where the injury occurred. Our responsibility is to determine if the provider should be licensed."

The case began last March when doctors at All Children's Hospital performed a thorough set of X-rays. What they found disgusted them: The baby had a 1-month-old fracture of his left forearm, a 4- to 10-day-old fracture of his right thigh, a 4- to 7-day-old fracture of his left shin bone, and a 4- or 5-day-old skull fracture.

"A child with these types of injuries might have experienced a motor vehicle accident," said Patsy Buker, executive director of the Suncoast Child Protection Team. "In the absence of that, a fall down a long flight of stairs. These are not injuries you would get from regular handling, diapering or bathing."

Most troubling, said Dr. Sally Smith, a pediatric consultant to the protection team, was that the boy's injuries were consistent with intentional, recurrent abuse. One of the injuries, a corner fracture of the left shin bone, was consistent with someone "grabbing him up by the ankle and either throwing him or twisting and jerking," Smith said.

"There's a lot of force behind it," Smith said. "You could probably generalize that somebody was very angry or out of control when they did something like that."

Elaine Fulton-Jones, an HRS spokeswoman, said: "Somebody hurt this child very badly, very obviously. You don't have broken bones and a skull fracture for a child of that age without somebody hurting the baby very badly. That's the part that horrified everybody."

That left a mystery: Who did it?

Investigators turned their attention to Colindres, a 37-year-old woman who babysits youngsters in her Largo home.

In October 1995, HRS looked into allegations that a 5-month-old had displayed several bruises after being in Colindres' care. And in 1992, her husband, Jose Colindres, was investigated because of allegations he sexually abused a girl. No charges were filed in either case.

The Colindreses insisted they were not responsible for the 6-month-old boy's injuries.

Mrs. Colindres told investigators that once, while she was changing the baby's diaper, she heard a "pop" that might have been the baby's thigh bone, records show. She also said she often held the baby by his wrists while playing and could have injured his wrists that way. She could not provide an explanation for the boy's skull fracture.

"It didn't happen here," Jose Colindres told investigators.

Mrs. Colindres had offered to take a polygraph test, records show, but changed her mind after consulting a lawyer.

The boy's mother passed a lie-detector test, records show.

But officials, who deleted the mother's name from the reports, had concerns about her as well.

For one thing, the mother had to borrow a child safety seat to take the boy to the hospital for X-rays, and officials were worried he was not being strapped into a car seat while his mother was driving. Officials also wondered why she did not seek treatment for the boy until days after his injuries.

"To my recollection," Smith said, "the mother didn't remember the boy's symptoms, which is surprising."