Aunt of abused, killed boy hopes to raise awareness of child abuse
Mason Naser was a regular 4-year-old boy, except for the bruises all over his body.
He liked to run around, wear cowboy boots every day and wanted to be a bull rider when he grew up. But Naser never had a chance to fulfill that dream.
He died in February 2013 at the hands of his caretaker.
Donika Gonzales was convicted April 11 for first-degree manslaughter and aggravated assault, charges that resulted from Naser's death. The 23-year-old Gann Valley woman faces up to life in prison for manslaughter and up to 15 years for aggravated assault. She will be sentenced in July.
During the trial, an interview recording was played in which Gonzales admitted to abusing the child because, "He wouldn't use the potty."
It was only eight days ago that Gonzales' trial concluded, during the middle of April's National Child Abuse Prevention Month. The observance is held to bring awareness to child abuse, neglect and instances such as the one that led to Naser's death.
Naser's aunt, Malissa Walters, who lives in Rapid City, has been working for more than a year to spread awareness of child abuse and prevention through a Facebook page called Justice for Mason.
"Mason's getting his justice," Walters said through tears after the trial. "I couldn't be happier."
According to the Child Welfare League of America, more than 1,400 South Dakota children were victims of abuse or neglect in 2010, the most recent year for which numbers are available for the state.
Of those 1,400 children, 95.8 percent (about 1,340 children) were neglected; 9.3 percent (about 130 children) were physically abused and 3.9 percent (about 55 children) were sexually abused.
Child abuse in South Dakota has been on the rise, according to Child's Voice, an advocacy group that works with various agencies in South Dakota, such as the Department of Social Services, to evaluate children who are suspected of being abused or neglected.
Connie Schmidt, director of Sioux Falls-based Child's Voice, a division of Sanford Health, said there has been a 36 percent increase in the number of child abuse and neglect cases reported in the past three years.
Walters is doing her part to help bring awareness to the problem. She held the first Child Abuse and Prevention Awareness Walk on April 12 in Chamberlain.
About 140 people attended Walters' walk, which raised $753 from raffles and T-shirt sales to sponsor an Easter egg hunt Sunday in Lower Brule at the high school football field. The Easter egg hunt will honor the memory of Naser.
"I want to create awareness," she said in a recent interview with The Daily Republic, only a few days following the verdict of Naser's trial. "I want people to know child abuse happens everywhere."
'They'd be bruised up'
Walters often saw her nephews -- Naser and his three brothers -- until about 2010, when Tyler Naser Sr., Mason's father, started dating Gonzales. Walters' sister, Angelina Walters, is Naser's mother. However, Gonzales was taking care of Naser and his brothers along with her own two children. That's because Mason Naser's mother, 29, is in the South Dakota Women's Prison in Pierre for an aggravated assault conviction in 2009 against another child, a 3-year-old boy who is not her son. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison; six were suspended.
Tyler Naser Sr. did not return messages left by The Daily Republic for requests for an interview for this story.
After Gonzales moved in with Tyler Naser Sr., Walters said she and her family weren't allowed to see the kids, and attempts to set up short visits were ignored.
"Not too long after, people started telling my family the kids were getting abused," Walters said. "They'd see the kids and they'd be bruised up."
Walters had moved to Rapid City, but much of her family still lived in Fort Thompson, which is not far from the Naser residence outside Gann Valley. Her family reported the bruising on the kids to the Department of Social Services.
"They would call Chamberlain DSS and (DSS) would say it was under investigation," Walters said, adding the social worker said the boys were "perfectly safe" at the Naser residence.
She never called in the abuse, because she didn't live there and her family had already called.
"I wish I would have," she said.
During the trial last week, a taped interview and witness testimony showed Gonzales admitted she was frustrated and tired of raising someone else's children. In the interview played during the trial, Gonzales admitted to slapping, hitting, kicking, stomping and pushing Naser.
Walters said she can understand Gonzales' frustration and how stressful it is to take care of someone else's kids -- but that doesn't justify what she did to the child.
Walters has two children, is now the guardian for Naser's three brothers and is going back to school for a nursing degree.
"Raising kids is one of the hardest jobs you'll ever have," Walters said. "I have an awesome support system ... When (Gonzales) had a hard day, she didn't have anybody. I feel bad for her, because she had no one to help her."
Abuse and prevention
Within the last four years, at least five children in The Daily Republic's print circulation area have died as a result of proven or alleged abuse or neglect -- Mason Naser, 4, of Gann Valley; Jacob Miller, 4 months, of Scotland; Levi Bruns, 3 months, of Gregory; Rielee Lovell, 2, of Wagner; and Brooklyn Howard, 3 months, of Mitchell.
Miller died in March 2011 at the hands of his father, Chris Miller, 40, who was convicted of second-degree murder in January 2013 by a Turner County jury. Miller originally claimed he found his wife passed out and sleeping on top of his son. It was later found Jacob Miller had suffered broken ribs, severe skull fractures and bleeding in his brain.
Levi Bruns died in March, after his father, Adam Bruns, 20, allegedly shook him and caused severe injuries. Bruns is charged with alternate counts of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter. He is also charged with alternate counts of aggravated assault and child abuse. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Authorities stated Levi Bruns suffered a brain hemorrhage and severe retinal hemorrhages in both eyes. According to court documents, Bruns was frustrated with his son for vomiting through the course of several days.
Health professionals say frustration is a normal feeling for all parents, but they teach techniques and give tips to deal with the stress of a baby crying.
"It is normal for an infant to cry," said Angie McCain, director of maternal care at Avera Queen of Peace Hospital in Mitchell.
She said most parenting classes are so full, they don't typically cover abuse topics, except shaken baby syndrome, to impress upon new parents they must not shake infants to stop them crying.
'You are not a bad parent'
McCain said inconsolable crying is normal for young infants and usually tapers off by the 5-month mark. She explained a few things parents can do to help babies calm down are checking for illness, soiled diaper, rashes, teething, fever, tight clothing or if the child is hungry.
To calm the child, gently rock and sooth it, or sing, talk, or put the child in a stroller for a walk or a car seat and take a drive.
If none of these works and the child continues crying, "You are not a bad parent," McCain emphasized.
She explained taking a break is important, and it is OK if feelings of stress, anger and frustration remain after trying to soothe the baby. If possible, contact a family member or friend to care for your child for a little bit. Otherwise, it is OK to place your child in his or her crib and walk away, checking on the baby every 10 minutes or so.
Taking time to recognize your own anger or stress levels is important so you know when to walk away, McCain said.
Two-year-old Rielee Lovell was in the care of Laurie and Taylor Cournoyer, of Wagner. The child was found dead in a closet on July 4, 2012, approximately two days after authorities determined she died. The Cournoyers were using methamphetamine around several children they cared for and were high when they were arrested. They admitted to law enforcement the 11-year-old charged with killing Lovell should not have been left alone with her.
Laurie and Taylor Cournoyer are both in prison for the roles they played in Lovell's death.
Three-month-old Brooklyn Howard was in the care of Lacey Tebay in 2012, who ran a day care in her Mitchell home. Tebay was never charged with a crime, but she and the parents of Howard came to a confidential, out-of-court civil settlement a few months after the child died.
Court records stated Tebay left Howard in a room alone with as many as seven other children and ignored Howard's cries after a 5-year-old allegedly attacked the baby. Howard died of multiple skull fractures as a result of blunt force trauma to the head.
Awareness and healing
The worst part of Mason Naser's death -- and of any child death or abuse -- is that it's preventable, Malissa Walters said.
"If one person would have done the right thing, this all could have been prevented," Walters said. "Whether it was Donika getting help or their dad saying, 'That's enough. You shouldn't be hurting my kids,' or if DSS would have done their job and seen the abuse."
Walters said she comes from "a crazy family."
Her mother has bi-polar depression. Her father is schizophrenic. Each one of her five siblings has been diagnosed with one or both of these diseases. But Walters is neither.
She said her mother would beat her brothers and her sisters would attack her mother. Her father was put in prison for severely beating her mother. Her mother spent some time in prison, which left Walters and her siblings in foster care for a while.
"I was into sports and my friends. Any time I could stay away from my house, I would take it," Walters said.
She often spent time with her grandmother, who was her savior, Walters said.
"My grandma showed me the meaning of what it is to love somebody," she said. "She always told me how important kids were."
Because she has training in child care and worked for Head Start -- a state and federal program -- Walters was granted guardianship of Naser's brothers the day after Naser died. The oldest lives at and attends St. Joseph's Indian School in Chamberlain, but the other two live with Walters in Rapid City.
Walters said the oldest brother blames himself for Naser's death, stating if he'd been there he could have protected the boys from Gonzales. Tyler Naser Jr. -- Mason Naser's brother who was often referenced during the trial -- is dealing with serious problems like shying from a raised voice, anger issues and possibly post-traumatic stress disorder, Walters said. The youngest brother is also dealing with some anger issues.
All three are in therapy and have progressed well in the last year, Walters said.
Teaching, not punishing
Child Protective Services, a division of DSS in Pierre, offers services and classes to help prevent child abuse and raise awareness, said Virgena Wieseler, division director.
Mental health, alcohol and drug services, and parenting classes are a few offered throughout South Dakota. The parenting classes in particular teach adults about child development.
"It's important for parents to understand what to expect from a child as that child grows," Wieseler said. "If you don't know the development or what to expect, then you have unrealistic expectations of those children."
She said DSS doesn't recommend physical discipline, rather discipline is about teaching, not punishing. Discipline should be age- and issue-appropriate, like a short timeout for throwing a fit.
"How do you teach your children right from wrong in an area of discipline?" she said. "There are healthy ways to teach your children."
She said it's also important for parents to know it's OK to ask for help and seek out resources. Ask family or become friends with neighbors who can give advice or provide some relief of a short time, Wieseler said.
Usually, abuse is caused by someone a child knows. The most prevalent form of child abuse is neglect, such as lack of proper clothing, food, shelter and supervision, Wieseler said.
The public can help out by learning and recognizing the signs of neglect and abuse, offering respite care and becoming a foster parent. If you suspect a child is abused or neglected, call law enforcement or a local social services office.
At Child's Voice, the primary goal is to ensure that abused children are not further victimized.
The center provides forensic interviews, medical exams, family consultations and advocacy and crisis counseling.
Schmidt said the organization helps prevent child abuse by giving public presentations to anyone who has contact with children. She agrees with Wieseler that the biggest aspect of children to understand is development and to have realistic expectations of children as they grow.
In conjunction with National Child Abuse Awareness Month, there are activities throughout the state, most notable being organized runs in Pierre, Sioux Falls and Rapid City, meant to raise awareness of child abuse and prevention, Schmidt said.
"Child abuse can happen anywhere," Wieseler said. "It's important for families and parents to know that no one teaches you how to be a parent. It's OK to ask for help. Sometimes you don't have all the answers."