When the Bough Breaks

In 1993, the Hyde Park Baptist Child Development Center hired a teacher who proved to be a little 'rough' with the children. Now the church is being sued for ignoring alleged child abuse.

When the Bough Breaks
Illustration By Nathan Jensen

In December of 2003, Tara Turner, recently divorced and with a year-old baby, was looking for a day care center. A family-law attorney, she planned to work from her Hyde Park home and wanted a place nearby so she could spend as much time as possible with her son, Parker. The Hyde Park Baptist Child Development Center, run by the Hyde Park Baptist Church, seemed perfect, located in the middle of one of Austin's oldest and poshest neighborhoods, and run by one of the city's best known churches. Tuition was high, and there was a long waiting list for enrollment, but Turner visited the center and was impressed with the colorful classrooms and attentive staff. "They seemed to run a very tight ship," she says.

Turner's legal background is in family law, representing abused children, and she was cautious about finding caretakers for Parker. She searched the records of the Department of Family and Protective Services and found that the center had very few licensing violations, all of a minor nature. "It seemed right out of a textbook – a perfectly safe place for a kid to be," she says.

It didn't turn out that way.

On the contrary, Turner would eventually discover that one of the center's teachers had a very short temper with her small charges, sometimes shoving them, pinning them against walls, or denying them food as punishment, according to witnesses testifying in a consequent lawsuit. What is much worse, the center's administrators stand accused of ignoring or tolerating the teacher's reportedly habitual mistreatment of small children, for months or even years after other staff had reported it. "I thought I was leaving my child in the safest place I could," Turner says. "I would never in a million years have thought that a group of adults would stand by and watch another adult abuse children and never say a word."

Turner enrolled Parker at the Child Development Center in February of 2004, when he was 13 months old, and he was assigned to the infants class. Parker took to the center quickly. He was an active and exuberant child who loved the company of other children. "He could be a handful," Turner says. "At the same time, he was the life of the party." His first teacher at the center noted that Parker needed to develop better boundaries with his classmates. He often "hugged and squeezed children who did not want to be hugged," she noted in one report. Indeed, Parker was bitten twice by other infants when he squeezed them and refused to let go. Still, in other respects he seemed to be adjusting well to being away from home.

In August of 2004, Parker was moved from the infants class to the class for young toddlers, taught by Sue Lowry, an older teacher who had been at the center for 11 years. Turner noticed that Lowry was stricter than other teachers, but she was not alarmed. "I thought she seemed like a grandmother," Turner said. "She had a lot of rules. She was very strict with us about when we could drop him off and pick him up. She wouldn't let parents brings treats for the class. She didn't hug or pick up the children. That seemed a little out of place." Still, Turner wasn't concerned. "I just thought, well, she has her own way," she says. That fall Turner filled out a parent satisfaction form and described herself as "highly satisfied" with the center.

A few months later, on Jan. 21, 2005, Turner took Parker to the center and found Lowry's 22-year-old teaching assistant, Renee Ratliff, in charge of Lowry's class. Turner says she asked after Lowry and was told only that she had gone home, for personal reasons. Lowry never returned. Ten days later, another of the center's teachers replaced Lowry in the classroom. A terse letter from the school to the parents informed them that the change would be permanent.

On her way to work that morning, Turner called the center's office to ask how Lowry was doing and when she might be back. According to Turner, director Ginny Braden replied vaguely, saying it was time for a change, and praising the class' new teacher. Suspicious, Turner asked Braden for reassurance that Lowry had not done anything "inappropriate" in the classroom and asked specifically if Lowry had done anything to Parker. According to Turner, Braden vehemently denied anything of the kind, adding that it was time for a change, that Lowry was getting older and wasn't keeping up with the center's policies and procedures. In a subsequent deposition, Braden would say she did not remember the details of the call, but she confirmed that she had not told Turner any specific information about Parker, and that, in general, she was telling parents who asked about Lowry's departure that "it was time for a change."

When she arrived at work that morning, Turner called her mother, a former public school teacher and day care employee, and explained what had happened. Her mother agreed that a teacher's unexplained disappearance in the middle of the school year was highly unusual. Now thoroughly alarmed, Turner drove back to the school, went to the director's office, and asked to see Braden. In Braden's office, Turner says, she asked again whether Lowry had ever harmed Parker, "physically, verbally, or emotionally." She began to feel uneasy when Braden wouldn't meet her eyes. After a long pause, Turner recalls, Braden said yes; Turner asked if Parker had been physically hurt and Braden nodded. She told Turner that Ratliff had reported on Jan. 19 that Lowry pushed Parker backward, causing him to hit his head on the tile floor. "That moment, my life changed," Turner says.

When the Bough Breaks
Photo By Taylor Holland

In her deposition, Braden characterized Turner's immediate response as an "emotional" overreaction to a relatively minor incident. She testified she does not recall telling Turner that Parker had been injured by Lowry. As she was explaining Lowry's absence from the classroom, Braden said Turner "may have asked me if her child was involved, and I said, 'Parker's name was mentioned,' because I tried to tell parents in that way. Tell them the same thing. An incident had been reported, and we had done an investigation, but we didn't feel it needed to be reported. And then I would tell people, if they wanted to know if there was anything about their child, then I would say whether their child had been mentioned or not."

In February of 2005, Turner filed suit against the church, with Parker's father, Terry Curtis (with whom she is now reconciled). The lawsuit charges the church with "negligent supervision and retention" of Lowry as a teacher and more specifically with failing to properly supervise Lowry in her care of Parker Curtis, asking damages on Parker's behalf for his physical pain and mental anguish, and that the church pay medical expenses associated with his psychotherapy until he reaches the age of 18. The parties are awaiting a pending mediation, expected early next year. Should that effort fail, the suit, originally scheduled for trial this month, has been rescheduled for late February.

Asked recently about the allegations in the lawsuit, HPBC attorney Craig Nevelow said, "We believe evidence supports our claim that the church was not responsible for any alleged injury to Parker Curtis." Lowry's attorney, Sean Breen, calls the charges against Lowry "ludicrous" and "malicious" and suggested that the teachers' aides who made the allegations did so out of personal animosity. "You have a woman who has devoted her whole life to caring for children, and it's a shame that an accusation like this can end her career," Breen said.

The incident between Sue Lowry and Parker Curtis will be a central issue to be argued in court. But beyond the specific reported incident with Parker – later confirmed by the state Department of Family and Protective Services – the witness depositions and related documents prepared for the case tell an alarming story.


Wonderful With Children

Sue Lowry came to the Hyde Park Baptist Child Development Center in 1993 from Moody Air Force Base, where her husband had been stationed and where she had earned a certification in child development in 1993. Lowry worked at the base day care center from 1991 to 1993, as a program assistant for the 3- and 4-year-olds' class. She came highly recommended. The references she provided in her application for the center – from a minister, a fellow church attendee, and the parent of a former student – described her as "level-headed," "wonderful with children," and "an excellent Christian woman." In her application, Lowry recounted being baptized and dedicating her life to Jesus at the age of 10.

The center hired Lowry in August of 1993, and assigned her to teach the prekindergarten class. According to Lowry's deposition testimony, her classroom style emphasized teaching independence, and she believed that children should learn the "natural consequences" of their actions – for example, if they threw their plates at meal time, they were finished eating. Administrators' notes praised Lowry for helping children to "problem-solve." But teachers who worked with Lowry over the years say her manner with children could be harsh, arbitrary, and overly physical and that she singled out certain children for undue discipline. Amber Braeckow, a teaching assistant who worked with Lowry for several months in 2003, says Lowry used physical discipline often with children who disobeyed her. "If a child was independent and doing it on their own, then she was very happy with that child, and that child didn't get much negative attention," Braeckow told attorneys in her deposition last May. "But children who were used to having someone do something for them and required that from Sue got a lot of hassle and frustration."

Lowry's career at the center seems to have been troubled from early on. In July 1995, the center sent Lowry a letter stating, "There are some changes that need to occur if you are to continue employment with the Hyde Park Child Development Center." The letter instructed Sue to be more flexible, allow more spontaneity from the children, and to use more color in her classroom. The letter also asked her to withdraw from "intense body language that indicates unavailability to children and parents." A signed statement from Lowry of the same date acknowledges the letter and agrees to comply with all requests.

But parents made complaints to administrators about Lowry's methods several times over the next 10 years. According to the records kept by the school, at least three parents requested their children be transferred out of Lowry's class. A teacher of older children filed a written complaint with administrators in 1996, saying that Lowry needed to "let go a little and relax! She does not observe children, she meddles in their play. She disrupts them instead of sitting back and observing." The same teacher noted that Lowry "breaks up group games because there are too many children in one area" and "tells the children to close their eyes when they pray so the devil will not tempt them." According to depositions of administrators, two of Lowry's teaching assistants asked to be moved to different classrooms because of Lowry's sternness. On two occasions, in 1995 and 2000, Lowry was asked, for unspecified reasons, to sign a statement acknowledging that "the safety of the children is the primary object of my employment." In 2000, Lowry allegedly flung a child into a pile of pillows in a corner of the classroom. According to administrative notes of the incident and Lowry's deposition, the child's mother, a secretary in the pastor's office, was walking past Lowry's classroom at the time of the incident and reported it to Braden. Braden met with Lowry about the incident, and her notes from the meeting indicate that Lowry was "emotional," said she had not been aware that her behavior was too rough, and promised that nothing of the kind would happen again. (In a May 2006 deposition, Lowry would claim that the child had jumped into the pillows and that her mother had misunderstood the incident.)

Not all the administrators' comments about Lowry were negative. Evaluations praised her for teaching independence and encouraging children to do things for themselves. When questioned by police after Parker's fall, Lowry would say that her teaching philosophy centered on helping children understand the "natural consequences" of their actions. "That means you let a child take what comes naturally," Lowry would explain in deposition. "The natural consequence of throwing your plate is evidently that you're finished eating." But Braeckow saw a darker side to that philosophy. "If she was telling a child not to stand on something, and they decided to do it anyway, she'd go over and help the situation end up in such a way that something hurt them physically in some way so that her point would come across," Braeckow told attorneys at her deposition. "She helped those consequences come to pass."

Braeckow was just 23, with some community-college credits in child development and a few months of experience teaching at a church-run day care in Mississippi, when she was hired by the center and assigned to Lowry's class. According to Braeckow, Lowry had a bad back and needed help with the physical parts of the job, such as lifting children in and out of strollers. Braeckow says that on days when Lowry's back was hurting, her behavior toward the children changed, becoming controlling and rigid. Braeckow would later tell police that she quickly noticed Lowry was "very strict and adamant about what she wanted. I noticed she did not give directions to the children rather than physically blocking them or guiding them. Sue would pin children up against a wall with her leg, pull against them when they were walking with the lead rope [also known as "guide rope," a rope with wooden hoops attached for the children to hang onto, which helps keep them together and in line], and push them off of furniture."

When the Bough Breaks
Photo By Taylor Holland

According to Braeckow's statements to police and attorneys, over the course of five months in Lowry's classroom, she saw Lowry dump a child out of her chair for wearing a hat without permission and deny the same child food for several weeks because she refused to put her toys away before lunch. Braeckow says Lowry also forced the girl to put her mat on the tile floor by the classroom sink during nap time, instead of on the carpet with the other children. "Sue seemed to like the children to submit to exactly what she wanted to do, and this child didn't submit to everything Sue asked her to do," Braeckow said in her deposition. "She really wanted to be treated like the rest of the children." Braeckow would also tell police that she saw Lowry pick another child up and throw her down from a height of two to three feet, because she would not stay on her mat at nap time, and force yet another child to drink milk until he gasped for air, among other incidents. "It really did bother me that when Sue corrected the children, she went about it in a physical way rather than saying anything beforehand," Braeckow said in her deposition. Braeckow said that Lowry did not allow her to comfort children who were upset after being punished.

After about a month of observing these and similar events, Braeckow recalls complaining about Lowry's behavior to Janie Basham, one of the center's three co-directors. "Nothing came of my report," Braeckow told the police later. "Every two or three days for two weeks, and sometimes on back-to-back days, I would make a complaint about Sue's treatment of the children to the administration." Braeckow says she spoke to the center's other co-directors, Wanda Baylor-Johnson and Ginny Braden, but received no acknowledgement that Lowry's behavior with the children was overly harsh and no indication that the administration planned to take action. Instead, they repeatedly brought up Lowry's military background to excuse her strictness. "Janie told me one day that my statements did not do any good because I was the only witness," Braeckow would tell police.

In her deposition, Baylor-Johnson said she did not remember any complaints about Lowry from Braeckow or other staff. Basham said she remembered a few complaints from Braeckow but says they seemed to arise from a difference in teaching style. According to Basham, Braeckow was "the type of teacher that wanted to do things for the children that they were quite capable of doing for themselves, viewing Sue as too stern, too strict." In her deposition, Braeckow said she once requested an afterschool meeting with Braden during which she laid out her concerns about Lowry and suggested that Lowry be assigned to an older age group that might frustrate her less. Braeckow says Braden acknowledged that Lowry could be harsh with the children but said there was "too much fighting" when Lowry had worked with older children at the center in the past.

Eventually, after four months of what Braeckow says were detailed, persistent complaints, administrators called a conference with Lowry and Braeckow. Braeckow says she repeated her allegations, but Lowry dismissed them. "Janie told Sue that if she was actually doing these things to children, then she needed to stop," Braeckow told police. "I felt like they did not believe me, and they treated me like I was overreacting." Braeckow told them she would rather work with another teacher, and shortly afterward she was moved to another classroom. In her deposition, Braden said she did not remember such a conference. She claimed other administrators did not report that Braeckow had complained that Lowry mistreated children, although she was aware that Braeckow did not like working in Lowry's classroom.

Once Braeckow left Lowry's classroom, she says she came to realize that Lowry's treatment of the children was widely known and even accepted in the center. "I noticed it was more like an innuendo and a joke among the teachers that Sue acts this way," Braeckow said at her deposition. Braeckow continued to observe the children in Lowry's class, from a distance. She says Lowry seemed to single Parker Curtis out for discipline; she says he often cried in the cafeteria at lunchtime, and on more than one occasion she saw Lowry use her leg to pin his chair to the table, preventing him from getting up.

Lowry's next teaching assistant, Renee Ratliff, would also tell police that she saw Lowry use harsh measures with the children in her classroom almost every day. Ratliff would tell police that Lowry "couldn't stand" Parker, and singled him out for mistreatment.


"That's What Happens"

On Jan. 18, 2005, Ratliff says, she saw Lowry approach Parker in the classroom, as he was playing in the model kitchen of the room's "Home Living" area. Ratliff was changing diapers just before nap time. She had noticed that Lowry was having one of her bad days and was keeping an eye on her over her shoulder. "Parker was doing no harm and not jeopardizing his or anyone else's safety," Ratliff later wrote in a report to the center administration. "This is why I took special notice when Sue went up to Parker and started to have a confrontation with him. Then I saw her use her body (hip and leg) to push him down. I have witnessed her doing this before when she felt a child would not cooperate." Ratliff would tell police that she saw and heard Parker's head sharply hit the tile floor when he fell. Parker began to cry, and Lowry told him, "That's what happens." Ratliff says she was in the habit of comforting the children that Lowry hurt, but this time Lowry told Parker "Miss Renee is not going to hold you." According to Ratliff, Lowry did not examine Parker for injuries or offer him ice or comfort. Lowry would later say that she had bumped Parker with her leg accidentally and that his injuries did not seem serious enough to require ice.

Upset by what she had seen, Ratliff went into the bathroom where teacher Shelly Miller was taking a bathroom break with her class. Miller would later say she noticed Ratliff seemed upset and asked what was wrong. When Ratliff told her about the shoving incident, Miller agreed that Lowry had acted inappropriately. From the next room, Miller says, she could hear Parker crying. That afternoon, according to her deposition, Miller made a report of the incident to Baylor-Johnson, who promised to inform Braden. Baylor-Johnson said she reported the incident to Braden, and the administrators began to look into the matter.

Tara Turner remembers picking Parker up from school that day. She lifted Parker up in the classroom and was holding him when he told her he had a "head ouchy." Turner asked him what happened, but Parker, who was just learning to talk, only repeated himself. Turner remembers Lowry hurrying over and hovering over Parker, telling him over and over again that she loved him until Parker told her that he loved her, too. Lowry had filled out the form she sent home with each child every day, checking the box that said, "Today I needed extra attention."

According to her written notes, the next day Shelly Miller examined Parker during recess and found a "quarter-sized" bump on the back of his head. Ratliff had called in sick that morning and would later tell administrators her "heart was too heavy" to come to work. Amber Braeckow took her place in Lowry's classroom for the day. That afternoon, Amber says she witnessed Lowry dump a boy out of his chair when he refused to get up as asked. The boy landed on his stomach and cried. When Ratliff returned the next day, Jan. 20, Braeckow described the incident she had seen and asked Ratliff if she saw Lowry behave that way often. Ratliff said yes and described an incident with Parker the day before. That night, Braeckow called the state's Child Protective Services agency (a division of Family and Protective Services) and made a report.

When the Bough Breaks
Photo By Taylor Holland

The same afternoon, according to administrative notes, as well as the depositions, Braden called Ratliff and Miller into her office and questioned them about the shoving incident with Parker. In the course of the interview, Ratliff and Miller raised other allegations of mistreatment against Lowry. Miller described an incident in which Lowry's class was walking with a guide rope. One child, who had started walking only a few days before, fell to her knees as the class was preparing to cross the street and began to cry. Lowry jerked the rope and continued walking, and the child was dragged out into the street on her knees. In her deposition, Braden said she believes the incident was misinterpreted by Miller, because in using the guide rope, "You have to keep the line taut."

Braden asked Ratliff and Miller to put their allegations in writing. That evening, Amber Braeckow called Braden at home to add her own allegations of mistreatment. Braden asked her to submit a written statement to the administration. On the morning of Jan. 21, three days after Parker's fall, Braden informed Lowry of the accusations and told her she would be suspended with pay until the center completed an investigation. Braden walked Lowry to her classroom to collect her personal belongings and escorted her out of the building.

The center did not inform parents in Lowry's class about the suspension or the investigation, nor did they tell Turner that teachers had examined her child and discovered a head injury. As far as parents in Lowry's class knew, Lowry was out for a few days for personal reasons, and everything was normal.


A Different Way of Thinking

On Jan. 28, three things happened. First, Sue Lowry submitted a letter of resignation to Braden in person; if she had not resigned, Braden says, she would have been terminated for failure to fill out paperwork associated with Parker's fall. Second, an investigator from Family and Protective Services came to the school and began an investigation of Parker's fall. Third, a letter went out to parents informing them that Lowry would not return. The letter was extremely brief, announcing only that Lowry had resigned and that a new teacher had taken her place. There was no mention of the incident with Parker Curtis nor the state investigation in progress.

Tara Turner says that when Braden told her, on Jan. 31, that her son had been knocked down and injured by his teacher, she was stunned. "The room went into slow motion for me," Turner said at her deposition. "It was quite horrible." Turner demanded to see the person who had reported the abuse, and Braden called Renee Ratliff into her office. Ratliff told Turner about the fall a week earlier and about many incidents that preceded it throughout the school term. According to Ratliff, Turner was very angry that neither she nor the school had previously reported these incidents to the parents or state agencies. Turner called her mother and her ex-husband, Terry Curtis, asking them to come to the school. She also demanded that Braden show her the report of Parker's fall. "She opened a thick file folder and took out two pieces of paper and said, 'Here, you can have this,'" Turner said.

Not satisfied, Turner picked up the whole notebook and left Braden's office, followed by a protesting Braden. Her mother had just then arrived and collected Parker from his classroom, and the three of them walked to Turner's car. Turner tried to drive away, but the center's security guard blocked their way. Braden stood outside the car arguing and finally offered to let Turner make photocopies of the notebook if she would return the originals. Turner consented, and all parties went inside to the school office. As Turner copied the file, she caught glimpses of other reports of Lowry's aggressive behavior toward children in her class. Just as she was finishing, Terry Curtis arrived, followed by two police officers called in by the center's security guard. "It all became very fuzzy for me," Turner says. "There was a lot going on – me, Mom, Terry, the police, the papers, here, there."

According to Braden, she called church security when Turner took her notebook, and the security guard called police. Turner "just basically took [the papers] from my desk and stole them and was trying to walk out," Braden said.

The officers demanded that Turner surrender her photocopies. She protested that Braden had given them to her, but the officers insisted. Turner begged them at least to keep the copies themselves, as evidence of a crime, rather than turning them back over to Braden and the school. They agreed. It would be more than a year, and many rounds of legal maneuvering, before Turner would see those records again and begin to understand all the details of what had happened to her son.

A month later, Family and Protective Services issued three "deficiency findings" against the center: one for Lowry's "treating children in a harsh & rough manner"; one for the center's failure to notify parents of an injury to a child; and one more for inadequate supervision of the child, "When a teacher bumped him to the floor with her body, causing him to bump his head." (A teacher is supposed to supervise children in order to protect them from harm, the agency noted; therefore, if a teacher harms students, the teacher and facility can be cited for failure of supervision.) However, on a fourth allegation, the agency noted, "There was insufficient evidence to find that a child was abused while in care." The center appealed for an agency administrative review. Licensing Supervisor Arthur Bussey sustained the findings but revised the language in one allegation from "a child was injured while in care" to "a child was pushed to the floor by a staff member causing him to bump his head." The administrative review also noted, "During the investigation, we learned Ms. Lowry had been observed mistreating other children in care."

In February, after the department's findings, followed by Turner's filing of a lawsuit against the church, the investigation became public, with brief stories in the Chronicle and on local TV. It was the first time most parents at the center had heard of the investigation or the reasons for Lowry's departure. The church responded with a letter to parents from Pastor Kie Bowman, reassuring them that "the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of your children has always been and will always be uppermost in our minds." A letter from the church's lawyers was enclosed, which stated their belief that Turner's suit is "totally deficient and lacking in merit." The lawyers' letter also included information calculated to discredit Turner, including the fact that, when advised of the incident, Turner "reacted with such profanity and actions that ... finally the Austin Police Department had to be summoned to restore order."

Notes from Hyde Park Baptist Child Development Center 
employees to administrators detailing concerns about Sue 
Lowry's interactions with children in her care
Notes from Hyde Park Baptist Child Development Center employees to administrators detailing concerns about Sue Lowry's interactions with children in her care

The APD began its own investigation of Parker's fall. When questioned by APD, Lowry admitted she had been frustrated with Parker on the day of his fall. She first claimed that Parker fell forward while walking toward his mat and hit his head on a shelf. After further questioning, she said she had taken Parker's hand to lead him to his mat and bumped him with her hip. "I have become frustrated and at times impatient, but I have never intended to harm a child in my classroom," she said in a signed statement to police.

Ginny Braden told police that, prior to Ratliff's report on Jan. 18, no one at the center had made any allegation of abuse against Lowry, though some staff had said that Lowry was "too rough," and Braden's own notes from observing Lowry's class noted that Lowry "needed improvement in the areas of compromise and nurturance." When deposed by attorneys in April, Braden said she did not remember Amber Braeckow's complaints about Lowry, nor the conference she held with Lowry and Braeckow. Braden testified she did not believe Lowry had ever committed abuse or acted inappropriately and that the "perceptions" of Braeckow, Renee Ratliff, and Shelly Miller were simply that: "perception." Asked if she believed the allegations of at least four center staff members that Lowry had mistreated children several times or the Family and Protective Services findings that Lowry had indeed pushed a child down, Braden said, "It was inconclusive, so I do not believe it." In the same testimony, she insisted, "In my mind, it was not reasonable to suspect Sue of child abuse." In their depositions, Basham and Baylor-Johnson agreed that they had trouble believing the accusations when they surfaced. And until Amber Braeckow called CPS on her own initiative, no one from the center contacted outside agencies about staff suspicions of child abuse on the part of Sue Lowry.

"I think these girls just have a different way of thinking about how children should be interacted with," Braden said. "They're younger, they wear their hearts on their sleeves more. That didn't fit in with Sue's philosophy."


Behind Closed Doors

After Turner learned about the shoving incident from Ginny Braden, she took Parker to a doctor and says he found a thickening of bone on the back on the child's head consistent with a serious fall, although Parker's skull was not fractured. Turner also took Parker to a therapist. She says he found his behavior to be consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder, including a recent tendency to imitate abusive behavior. Turner says Parker has become aggressive with other children and with Turner's pet terrier. According to Turner, Parker was sweet and gentle with the dog when the family first adopted it in the fall of 2004 but later began to kick, hit, and smother the 5-lb. dog. Also during that fall, when Parker was in Lowry's class, Turner says she noticed his behavior toward other children becoming more aggressive – behavior which has continued. According to Turner, the child who used to hug other children too much now pushes them down, unprovoked. Since learning to speak, Parker sometimes mentions Lowry, Turner says, saying things like "Miss Sue, don't push."

It's not unusual for children who experience aggressive behavior from a caretaker to become aggressive, says Dr. Tammy Linseisen, a professor of clinical social work at UT who specializes in child abuse and neglect issues. "Any time there is overdiscipline or abuse from a caregiver, there is potential for the child to develop issues with mistrust," Linseisen says. "This is a critical age when they're figuring out who they can trust and who they can't trust. Issues with trust could show up as a change in behavior. If a child has spent a lot of time with an aggressive caregiver, it would not surprise me to see that kid become more aggressive."

Linseisen says aggressive behavior from a caretaker can cause a young child's neural pathways to be laid down in such a way as to expect aggression. However, a child who is removed from an abusive or aggressive environment and treated lovingly should be able to recover, she says. "For the most part, kids with good parents and a good situation to go home to, whose parents take them out of the abusive situation, have a good chance of bouncing back," Linseisen says.

Turner removed Parker from the center immediately after learning about the incident and left her job to stay home with him. She filed a lawsuit against Lowry, the child development center, and the Hyde Park Baptist Church. Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle recused his office from prosecuting the criminal case against the church, saying that members of his staff have children attending the center. The prosecution was handled instead by Randy Leavitt, a special prosecutor from the Travis Co. Attorney's Office. According to Turner, Leavitt was pessimistic from the outset about the case against the church, and at a hearing in December, the grand jury refused to indict. "He told me the grand jury wouldn't give it any notice, because they are used to seeing children with 10 broken bones."

Leavitt concurs that the case had long odds against getting an indictment from the jury. "It's not my job to be pessimistic or optimistic, but there were some issues with this case," Leavitt says. "The main issue was the extent of the injuries. It appears that a little boy just got bumped down." Leavitt prosecuted the case to the grand jury in December. The jury returned a no-bill on all counts of the case, refusing to indict either Lowry or the church. Grand jury proceedings are secret by law, but Turner questions whether Leavitt presented all the evidence to the jury. Leavitt says a full presentation was made, including allegations of Lowry's mistreatment of other children but that the jury was asked to indict only on the single Jan. 18 instance of Lowry pushing Parker down.

Leavitt's office released its entire file from the case's investigation to the church before the grand jury hearing, including the copies of the administrators' notebook that APD had taken from Turner in January 2005. Leavitt says he did not believe that releasing the documents to the church would prejudice the outcome of the grand jury hearing, so he saw no reason not to release them. "I don't believe in hiding the ball," he says. But Turner petitioned both APD and the special prosecutor's office for those documents but never received them. Turner and her attorney, Laurie Higginbotham, filed a motion after the grand jury hearing to compel the church to surrender the copies of the notebook. A district judge agreed with them – not only ordering the release of the notebook but slapping the church with a $500 sanction for not releasing it earlier.

Still, Turner questions whether the church is too politically powerful to be tried fairly in Travis County. The church has certainly not been shy in the past about throwing its political weight around. When the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association tried to block the church from building a massive parking garage, the church waged a 10-year war, even calling on allies in the Legislature for help in defending its right to build. Thus far the church has been successful at keeping the alleged abuse, and the ensuing investigations and lawsuit, very quiet. Some parents whose children are alleged to have been mistreated by Lowry found out only recently, and some, whose children are no longer at the school and who didn't catch the brief mention of the center in the news, may still not know.

One parent received a call from Ginny Braden in November 2005, informing her that her daughter had allegedly been mistreated by Lowry in the spring of 2004. Amber Braeckow had named the child in her police statement, saying Lowry had pinned the girl, then 1 year old, against a wall with her leg to punish her for having her shoelaces untied. "I was shocked, but in a way it made sense," this parent said – Lowry had struck her as a "real Nazi." She and her husband had withdrawn their daughter from the center after witnessing Lowry speaking harshly to her about using a bottle. "It seemed a completely inappropriate way to talk to a child that young. It made me wonder what went on behind closed doors." The parents say they approached Ginny Braden about the incident and asked her if she would be taking any action against Lowry. Braden said no. They withdrew their daughter from the center immediately. Braden's November phone call didn't mention that the allegations of mistreatment came from a police investigation, this parent says. Braden did urge her to meet with Pastor Bowman, but she refused. "I didn't want any part of it," she says. "I really feel that this place is all about protecting the church and not about protecting the children." end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Hyde Park Baptist Child Development Center, Tara Turner, Parker Curtis, Sue Lowry, Hyde Park Child Development Center, Renee Ratliff, Ginny Braden, Terry Curtis, Craig Nevelow, Sean Breen, Department of Family and Protective Services, Amber Braeckow, Janie Basham, Wanda Baylor-Johnson, Shelly Miller, Kie Bowman, Tammy Linseisen, Randy Leavitt, Laurie Higginbotham, Hyde Park Baptist Church

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