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Kathleen Steele case: What happens to a 6-year-old who kills his own baby sister? (w/video)

Kathleen Steele, 62, is charged with aggravated manslaughter of a child. Her sons are in state custody.
Published Aug. 16, 2016

What happens to a 6-year-old boy after he kills his own baby sister?

That is the question being asked after the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said a 6-year-old boy beat a 13-day-old infant to death on Monday. She died, deputies said, while the mother left her three children alone in a minivan for about 30 minutes.

Experts say it will take years to find the answers.

Dr. Kristopher Kaliebe, a University of South Florida professor and forensic psychiatrist, has spent the past decade working with children in Louisiana's juvenile justice system.

Related: Sheriff: 6-year-old beat infant sister to death

It is possible, he said, for children to overcome the grief, trauma and shame of acts they committed at a young age.

"I've dealt with a lot of kids who have done horrible things," Kaliebe said. "But it's amazing how some of them do."

It all depends on how stable a support system the boy will receive in the future, Kaliebe said, how good his future home life will be.

For now, though, the 6-year-old boy's home life has been splintered apart.

He and his 3-year-old brother will not soon be reunited with their mother, 62-year-old Kathleen Steele, who faces a charge of aggravated manslaughter of a child. The Tampa Bay Times is not naming the boys because of their age.

The 6-year-old was Steele's first child, born after she announced her pregnancy on a TV reality show titled I'm Pregnant and … 55 Years Old. After her husband died, she gave birth to two more children via artificial insemination, using his frozen sperm. Her infant, Kathleen Bridget Steele, was born July 26.

The mother was released from jail on $100,000 bail Friday night. But instead of returning to her North Redington Beach home, the Raymond James & Associates broker was expected to be transferred to a mental health center.

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Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Saturday that jail medical workers initiated Steele's placement in the mental health facility. Because of health care privacy laws, he said, he could not comment on whether she had been held under the Baker Act, which allows for the involuntary commitment of patients possibly experiencing mental health emergencies.

Before her release, a judge ordered that Steele be placed under house arrest, wear a GPS monitor and stay away from children — unless she obtains a court order allowing it.

Her two sons were placed in therapeutic foster care, deputies said, but in separate homes. Department of Children and Families spokeswoman Jessica Sims said therapeutic foster parents are licensed by the department to provide a high-level of care and are available "24 hours a day."

The 6-year-old will also not be returning to his school, Lakewood Elementary, where he just started the first grade.

Pinellas County School District spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said the school system will work with DCF to lay out an educational plan for the child. But right now it's unclear what that will entail.

"It's an unprecedented situation," she said.

The 6-year-old, according to the Sheriff's Office, said that while left alone in the locked minivan, the baby started to fuss and cry. He picked her up and said he tried to mimic how his mother would calm the baby.

Instead, he punched, slammed and tossed the infant around, deputies said, leaving her skull fractured. Investigators believe the baby died in the minivan, though she was officially pronounced dead at a hospital hours later.

"Sometimes people make very big mistakes," the boy told investigators.

Kaliebe warned that if the 6-year-old is bounced between caregivers or group homes, it could be catastrophic to his ability to grow into a successful adult.

Right now, the psychiatrist said, the boy is likely traumatized and feels terrible about the situation.

Another expert, USF Director of Pediatric Psychology Kathleen Armstrong, said that as the boy grows and starts to understand what he did to his baby sister, he will struggle.

She has counseled 6-year-olds who have killed small animals. She said at that age they typically don't realize what harm they've inflicted.

"At 6, children are too young to understand life and death yet," she said. "A lot of little children that age would think, kind of magically, if they did anything they'd come back (to life)."

Armstrong said the rarity of such cases means her profession's literature on this phenomenon is limited. Still, she said, it's not hard to imagine how it could have happened.

Young children, she said, just have poor impulse control.

"You're left sitting in a hot car and you're alone and you don't know what to do and the baby starts crying," she said.

Kaliebe said often children who act out violently have a troubled home life, leaving authorities to try to unravel the complex circumstances that could lead a young child to commit violent acts.

Gualtieri, the sheriff, said the mother tried to turn her 6-year-old son into a sort of surrogate father for his younger siblings. He said deputies also believe the mother appeared to act aloof, moments after discovering her baby's injuries, and later while being interviewed by detectives.

"The family is going to need a lot of care, a lot of support," Armstrong said. "This little child has done something unspeakable and when he's old enough to understand it is probably going to haunt him for the rest of his life."

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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