A grandmother’s sad tale of grief
Cleveland County parents held in death of toddler
By Joe DePriest
The frequent vision seems all too real to Kathy Jean Swafford: her only grandson comes back from the grave.
Jeremiah Swafford, who was beaten to death in February at age 2, tells her about the abuse he suffered and whispers he’s OK now, the hurt is gone.
For Kathy Jean Swafford, those imagined words of comfort don’t ease the loss of a child she considered her own. New details of his death in a recently released autopsy report have made things worse.
“Jeremiah had bruises we didn’t see,” said Swafford, 39, who lives in southern Cleveland County. “I figured the report would be bad and it was. Nobody can imagine the pain this brings.”
Jeremiah’s mother, Kathy Lynn Swafford, 21, and her husband, Dwight Stacy Justice, 42, remain in the Cleveland County Detention Center under $200,000 bond each. They’re awaiting trial on charges of felony child abuse and murder. Both have criminal records and there’s a history of drug abuse.
Kathy Jean Swafford hopes Jeremiah’s case will raise public awareness of the state’s child abuse problem. Last year, 25 children died from child abuse in North Carolina. In 2007, there were more than 120,500 reported cases of child abuse and violence, according to Prevent Child Abuse of North Carolina Inc.
Authorities said that on Feb. 13 the Cleveland County EMS responded to the apartment near Shelby where Kathy Lynn Swafford and Justice lived after a caller reported that Jeremiah was sick.
The toddler died at Carolinas Medical Center on Valentine’s Day. Mecklenburg’s medical examiner said the cause was blunt trauma to the head, a result of physical assault or abuse.
The autopsy noted bruises and punctures on the child’s chest, arms and legs. There was a blue-green discoloration of the abdomen and a six-inch fracture on the left side of the skull.
According to the report, Jeremiah suffered “diffuse brain swelling with beginning of brain herniation” and was bleeding from his nose, mouth and around his rectum.
“The mother reported to authorities that the stepfather would often ‘be mean’ to the child and this included hitting him and causing bruises,” according to the autopsy. “She stated that he may have slammed his head against an arm of the chair the night before.”
Kathy Jean Swafford said family members had contacted police and social services in the past to get help because they suspected the toddler was being abused.
‘My first grandbaby’
Jeremiah’s case stirred outrage and criticism of the Cleveland County Department of Social Services. A report released by DSS in late February showed social workers were unable to substantiate allegations of abuse during a five-week investigation. The report detailed an escalating pattern of contact between investigators and the family, and said DSS was planning to close the case as “unsubstantiated” when the 2-year-old died.
Swafford continues to criticize DSS and the Cleveland County Sheriff’s Office for the way the case was handled.
“Jeremiah was my first grandbaby. I named him,” Swafford said. “I feel like the system let him down and I want justice.”
Cleveland County Assistant District Attorney Bill Young said Kathy Lynn Swafford and Justice probably won’t stand trial before spring 2010. Both say they’re innocent.
Justice’s lawyer, Ted Cummings of Hickory, said Justice “is doing well under the circumstances.
“He’s got a lot of support from his family and friends,” Cummings said. “He’s a very religious person and is satisfied that the truth will set him free.”
Getting at truth
Swafford’s attitude toward her daughter reflects anger, frustration and natural parental concern. At first, they had no contact. Then Swafford decided to go to the county jail for a visit. As she stood in line, she had time to think about their first meeting.
“The more I thought, the madder I got,” she said. She turned around and left.
Mother and daughter have yet to meet in person. But in time, the daughter began calling and writing, asking about relatives, mentioning a new interest in the Bible, describing weight loss and sleepless nights. One morning, she said, Jeremiah visited the jail cell.
The toddler is always on the young mother’s mind, Kathy Jean Swafford said.
“She’s still saying she didn’t do it,” she said. “I’m hoping and praying to God she didn’t. But she was there when it happened and should have been looking after him.”
Getting at the truth is hard.
“I’m talking to the Lord to show me the way,” Swafford said. “I’m supposed to love my daughter no matter what. I can’t turn my back on her.”
Swafford said the family can’t afford to make bond for her daughter. Meanwhile, she’s circulating a petition to withdraw the bond for Justice.
This summer, she put a heart-shaped marker on Jeremiah’s grave. She visits the small church cemetery in southern Cleveland County several times a week. People think she’s crazy, Swafford said, but she sits down talks to her grandson.
“I tell him I love and miss him,” she said. “I tell him I wish I could change what happened.”