Stronger laws in play in Mercer County starvation case
Changes to Pennsylvania law could help Mercer County prosecutors secure severe penalties if they can convict a mother and grandparents accused of starving a 7-year-old boy who nearly died.
The boy's mother, Mary C. Rader, 28, and maternal grandparents Dennis C. Beighley, 58, and Deana C. Beighley, 47, could receive as much as 20 years in prison if they are found guilty of aggravated assault, the most serious of the charges in the case. Online court records did not list an attorney for any of them.
“I don't think that the district attorney is going to be hard-up for serious felonies to charge these people with if the evidence is there that they starved this kid within an inch of his life,” said Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler, who chaired the state's Task Force on Child Protection, which recommended ways to strengthen Pennsylvania's child abuse laws in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case. “We upped the ante to provide adequate punishment for what is some pretty unspeakable conduct.”
The boy, now 8, weighed 20 pounds and foraged for insects for food, Mercer County Detective John J. Piatek said. He was taken to Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville for treatment, is in foster care and has been gaining weight steadily.
Rader and the Beighleys, who live together in a Greenville home on North Second Street, were freed from jail after posting a $75,000 bond.
“We were surprised that the magistrate set their bond that low because the aggravated assault charges carry a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, but the magistrate reasoned that they were local citizens and that it was a sufficient amount to ensure that they would return to their hearings in front of him,” Mercer County District Attorney Robert Kochems said.
Mandy Zalich, executive director of the Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Westmoreland County, said the Mercer County case sounds like child torture. Pennsylvania is one of 10 states that does not include torture in child abuse statutes, but new legislation made laws more strict.
“I'll match our definition of child abuse with any in the nation,” Heckler said. “I can't think of many forms of what you would consider torture to a child that would not be aggravated assault.”
Changes to the state's criminal code took effect on Jan. 1. They allowed prosecutors to file felony aggravated assault charges based on a child's age and not whether parents intended to harm their children, Heckler said. The reforms help prosecutors charge alleged child abusers with felonies punishable by as much as 10 to 20 years in prison.
Cathleen Palm, founder of the Center for Children's Justice, said Pennsylvania has made strides in the years since Sandusky, a former Penn State University assistant football coach, was convicted of abusing 10 boys over 15 years, and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison. But there is more to do.
“We are far more tolerant than we should be with what we allow to happen to the child before there is a stiff penalty that would send a message to anyone who would think to do this,” Palm said.
A preliminary hearing for Rader and the Beighleys is scheduled for July 30 before Magisterial District Judge Brian Arthur in Greenville.
Staff writer Carl Prine contributed to this report. Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or firstname.lastname@example.org.