How prosecutors held a stepmother accountable for mentally and physically torturing her two stepsons when the abuse did not rise above simple bodily injury
With a massive busted lip that was turning green and two raccoon-like black eyes, 12-year-old Kevin (not his real name) showed up at the emergency room with his father, Jonathan, on March 30, 2016. Kevin claimed he busted his lip from a fall while rough-housing with his brothers.
The ER doctor, however, found no signs of a bracing injury to Kevin’s wrists, as would be expected with a fall. Additionally, he noticed that Kevin had no nasal trauma. For a child to injure his eyes and lip but miss his nose in a fall is nearly impossible. When the doctor examined Kevin’s body, he found a hand-shaped bruise on his chest and various bruises of different ages all over his torso and shoulders.
The doctor reported Kevin’s injuries as child abuse to police and rescued the boy from an ongoing pattern of torture at the hands of his stepmother, Sara Woody.
The family situation
Sara Hankins met Jonathan Woody online. Jonathan had two boys at the time, Kevin, age 9, and Curtis, 5. Sara also had two children, Hope, age 4, and Carter, 2. Sara testified that Kevin and Curtis called her “Mom” the first time they met her.
After dating a while, she promptly got pregnant, she and Jonathan married in September 2013, and the blended family lived in Fort Worth. At Sara’s request, Jonathan pulled his two children out of public school, and Sara began homeschooling them.
Sara and Jonathan had their baby, Cade, in 2014. In September 2015 at Sara’s request, Jonathan quit his job and moved the family to Burkburnett, Sara’s hometown. She did not work but homeschooled all of the children.
She was pregnant for most of the time that she and Jonathan were together. Sara had a miscarriage in 2013, and Cassidy, their youngest child, was born while Sara was in jail for this case in the summer of 2016.
The initial forensic interview
Nine days after the ER doctor reported Kevin’s injuries to police, Kevin was interviewed at Patsy’s House, our child advocacy center. The boy did not disclose any abuse, nervously apologizing at one point for deviating from what he meant to say. Kevin did make a strange statement that when he ate food without permission, it was “stealing” and that he would have to go to jail, mow lawns, or clean someone’s house to earn money to pay for that stolen food.
Fortunately, at the same interview session, Kevin’s 7-year-old brother, Curtis, and 5-year-old stepsister, Hope, made disclosures. Curtis said that when Kevin got in trouble for stealing Sara’s honey buns and chocolate chips, he had to stay in the closet buck-naked. Further, when Kevin and Curtis “stole food” from their family, their stepmother Sara made them drink apple-cider vinegar to throw it up.
Similarly, Hope disclosed that her mother made Kevin sleep in a closet when he was in trouble and that she made Kevin drink something to throw up the snacks he stole.
Another forensic interview
After being placed with their maternal grandparents for a month, Kevin and Curtis began opening up about their abuse at Sara’s hands, so they were interviewed a second time.
Kevin apologized for not being willing to talk about it the first time. He told the forensic interviewer he didn’t want to be mad and sad, and to talk about the abuse made him mad and sad. Kevin disclosed that Sara busted his lip by repeatedly striking it with a metal spoon. Kevin also said that Sara struck him all over the body for stealing food, and she would make him strip and sit in his room naked as punishment. Kevin said he ate food without permission because Sara wouldn’t feed him. He also disclosed that Sara would give him rice and beans to eat as punishment, which was different from the food for the rest of the family. Sara would make him do exercises such as wall-squats and push-ups as punishment, and she would strike him with a tent-pole (a fiberglass rod from a baby tent) when he stopped. Sara would make him drink apple cider vinegar and cayenne pepper to “give back” (throw up) the food he stole. His stepmother also made him lick the toilet as punishment for lying. Finally, he disclosed that when his younger brother Curtis wet the bed, Sara would hit Curtis on the genitals as punishment.
Curtis also disclosed having to lick the toilet as punishment for lying and said that Sara struck his genitals with a belt as punishment for wetting the bed. The boy described how bruised his genitals would be after Sara hit him. Finally, Curtis said the defendant put a lighter under his tongue for lying.
As I processed the case, three major themes of abuse emerged: parentification, scapegoating, and child torture. Sara looked to Kevin, as the oldest child, to serve in a parental role for the younger children: making their meals, cleaning the house, and doing extreme chores. This dynamic is called parentification: asking a child to take on a parental role for which he is not equipped. With Kevin’s significant intellectual delays, he was simply not able to do all the chores and his homeschool assignments. His failures led to Sara—and the rest of the family—scapegoating Kevin. When Kevin could not carry out his “parental” duties, Sara blamed him for everything that went wrong with the family and signaled to the rest of the children that Kevin was to blame. This is classic scapegoating, which is common in abusive families. Child torture was also occurring in this household. Child torture is a combination of physical abuse and humiliation or terror. It involves depriving the child of the essentials for life such as food, drink, and the bathroom, as well as humiliating or terrorizing the child. The goal with child torture is to break the child’s will.
The charging decision
After the boys’ disclosures, John, a co-author of this article, knew we were dealing with serious abuse and wanted to find the appropriate charge. While Sara Woody’s actions were horrific, the physical abuse merely constituted simple bodily injury, which would be only a third-degree felony (with a 10-year maximum prison sentence) under the Injury to a Child statute.1 That did not seem sufficient for her crimes against these children.
In looking through the offense, we discovered that causing serious mental injury, deficiency, or impairment was a first-degree felony.2 While there was not much caselaw on the subject, I found a Court of Criminal Appeals case that seemed to accept (without deciding) that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) qualified as a serious mental injury.3
After the boys’ full disclosures of the abuse and reports from their caregivers about their behavior (extreme fear, checking to make sure the doors and windows were locked, jumpiness, etc.), Child Protective Services (CPS) decided to have the children re-evaluated for mental injury. (The initial psychological testing conducted before the trauma was revealed had some interesting findings about Kevin—including that he identified with the statement “I want to kill myself” and he finished the statement “I suffer” with “… to die for my family,” which fit his scapegoating and parentification roles—but did not diagnose any PTSD.)
The second set of psychologicals, however, found that Kevin, Curtis, Hope, and Hope’s younger brother, Carter, age 4, all had PTSD; Dr. Brandon Bates, who later testified for the State as an expert witness, found that the older three also had a serious mental injury too.
Before we started this case, we thought of PTSD as a thinking issue, but we learned it is actually a psycho-biological issue. Thus, while counseling for child trauma can help alleviate some of the symptoms, a child with PTSD will have a host of neuropsychiatric problems that last a lifetime. Dr. Bruce Perry, a leading psychiatrist and expert in child trauma, wrote in an article on his website, www.childtrauma.org: “Indeed the residual emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social sequelae of childhood trauma persist and appear to contribute to a host of neuropsychiatric problems throughout life.”
PTSD in children changes how the brain develops and how it is biologically wired. A child exposed to abuse severe enough to cause PTSD will never be the same. Our psychologist, Dr. Bates, later testified that there was no simple cure for PTSD and that the traumatic injury can impact a child’s entire future, including friendships, schoolwork, and romantic relationships.
Finally, the literature indicates that adult-onset PTSD is very different from PTSD in children. The brain of, say, a soldier with PTSD from the battlefield will be altered, but that soldier’s brain was already developed when he was traumatized. PTSD in children, on the other hand, is even more long-lasting because it impacts how a child’s brain develops. Children may appear more resilient to the trauma, but Dr. Perry’s work shows they are instead malleable—that is, they are forever changed by the trauma. Additionally, children are less able to express the trauma than adults, so they are less able to process and deal with what has happened to them.
Based upon those exams, the grand jury indicted Sara Woody on three first-degree counts of causing serious mental injury for Kevin, Curtis, and Hope. I held back on charging her for injuring Carter because, at his young age, I didn’t think he would be able to testify. The grand jury also indicted Sara for multiple counts of physical abuse.
Building the case
Jury selection began on August 21, 2017, the date of the solar eclipse. We hoped the strange sights in the sky portended impending doom for Sara Woody.
Our first witness was the ER doctor, Dr. Jeremy Sautner. In addition to Kevin’s physical injuries and how they were red flags for abuse, the doctor also explained that because Kevin weighed only 61 pounds at age 12, he was below the 3rd percentile on the growth chart. Being under the 15th percentile signaled failure to thrive. We believed this was strong corroboration of Sara starving Kevin and forcing him to throw up food.
Next, we called the detectives, who met with Kevin at the ER and then executed multiple search warrants on Sara’s house. They cataloged the items that the boys described in their interviews: bottles of apple cider vinegar, a cowboy belt with an eagle on it (Curtis described that his stepmother used this belt to strike his genitals), a 2×4, fiberglass tent poles, and a fireplace lighter.
Hope’s great aunt, with whom she had lived for the past year, testified to Hope’s lack of empathy for her siblings. For instance, she would torment her baby sister by holding a toy just out of her reach and then giggle. The aunt also related a shopping trip on the second day Hope was with her. Hope was telling her aunt about her day, but then her mood suddenly changed to hate: “Kevin is bad. He said my name is different than his. I want to hit him with a hammer and nails.” The jury seemed to react in shock to that testimony.
The boys’ testimony
On our second day of trial, Curtis and Kevin testified. Because of his age (just 8 by this time), Curtis testified by closed-circuit TV from a room across the hall.4 Curtis described all the horrible abuse but managed to completely charm the jury. (“You’re the one doing all the work here,” he quipped to the court reporter.) The boy testified to a dream he had before he came to court: “Nobody was watching Sara and she got a knife and stabbed everybody in the courtroom.” We felt this dream was important to show his ongoing fear of Sara, as nightmares about the source of trauma are a key sign of PTSD.
On cross, the defense attorney took Curtis through a list of foods the defendant cooked and offered photo after photo of the family doing fun things and looking happy. During one exchange, when the defense attorney handed Curtis a photo of the kitchen, the boy exclaimed, “That’s where I hid the paddle from Sara when she was hitting everybody. She never found it, either.”
Now 13 years old, Kevin had to testify in the courtroom with the defendant. He was not quite as verbal as Curtis and had been subjected to greater abuse. Kevin acknowledged on direct examination that his dad knew about some of the abuse and never did anything to stop Sara from hurting him. When I asked him what he thought about that, Kevin broke down crying and said, “I thought he didn’t love me anymore.” (The grand jury indicted Jonathan for endangering and for perjury at the CPS adversary hearing where he denied telling Kevin to lie about Sara busting his lip.)
On cross, the defense kept Kevin on the stand for several hours, discussing how he didn’t know who his father was until he was 4, asking him about various men he thought were his dad, and going over his tumultuous life before he met his real dad. Jonathan had gotten Kevin’s biological mother pregnant, but she had many boyfriends so Kevin did not know until he was 4 that Jonathan was his father. Until then, he had been subjected to a series of men in his (and his mother’s) life whom he thought were his dad. Once Kevin was exhausted from the questions and answers, the defense attorney started with rapid-fire, leading questions:
“Sara was the only one who was like a mom to you?”
“Sara did nice things for you?”
“Sara couldn’t make you do anything you didn’t want to do, could she?”
“You got with your brother and decided to tell lies on Sara?”
It was clear to me that Kevin had shut down and was just agreeing with anything to make the questions stop, but we weren’t sure how the jury would react to Kevin’s collapse. On redirect, I had Kevin explain that everything he had said on direct about Sara was true. For us, watching the boys testify was the longest day of the entire trial.
We started the third day with Hope, also by closed-circuit television. Six-year-old Hope testified that she would be awakened in the middle of the night by Kevin stealing food from the kitchen and Sara yelling at him. Our main goal in having her testify was to make her available so her outcry would be admissible.
The battle of the experts
After the children had testified, our psychologist, Dr. Brandon Bates, testified regarding the tests that he performed on each of them and his conclusions that they had PTSD and had each suffered a serious mental injury.
We agreed to let Dr. Joann Murphey, the defense psychologist, testify out of order since she was coming from San Antonio and was entitled to hear Dr. Bates’ testimony. On direct, Dr. Murphey criticized some of Dr. Bates’ procedures and claimed that Kevin and Curtis did not have trauma scores in the clinical range. But on cross, Dr. Murphey had to admit that Kevin and Curtis did, in fact, have scores in the clinical range, the most severe range for trauma.
Dr. Murphey also helpfully explained to the jury how PTSD is a biological injury to the brain, not just a thinking issue, and that in young children, exposure to trauma impacts how their brains are organized. Dr. Murphey agreed PTSD can be missed if a psychologist doesn’t know that a child has experienced trauma. She further explained that there is no easy fix for a child with PTSD and that PTSD can spawn a host of neuro-psychiatric problems over a child’s lifetime.
In preparing to cross Dr. Murphey, I examined her website, which included a link to Dr. Bruce Perry’s Child Trauma Academy at www.childtrauma.org. This link was the equivalent to us of the winning Powerball numbers, as Dr. Perry’s website had many articles about how debilitating PTSD is in children. While Dr. Murphey claimed not to know about the link to Dr. Perry’s Stress Academy on her website (“I have no idea what’s on my website. I haven’t been on it in probably 20 years”), she was very forthcoming about the science behind PTSD and how damaging it is to children.
I also took Dr. Murphey through an article on child torture5 and how the markers of torture include physical abuse, humiliation, terrorization, isolation (often in the name of homeschooling), confinement, and starvation. I then gave her hypotheticals based on Kevin and Curtis’s disclosures and asked if those hypothetical situations would fit the definition of child torture. She testified that both boys’ disclosures qualified as torture.
Finally, I asked Dr. Murphey about the dangers of suggestibility in forensic interviews. My intention was to ask her about the defense’s attorney’s aggressive questioning of Kevin on the stand, but she thought I was asking about the forensic interviewer at the children’s advocacy center. In her answer, Dr. Murphey said that leading questions like that were very inappropriate for a child and that a child torture victim could easily be put back in the “obedience” position by an adult taking an authoritarian tone with him. In the obedience position, the child would just agree with everything the authority figure asked. Thus, Dr. Murphey neatly set up my closing argument that the defense attorney’s bullying tactics with Kevin would likely lead to unreliable answers from a child torture victim. This effectively diffused Kevin’s collapse on cross.
The forensic interviewer
For the final day of the State’s case, we called the forensic interviewer, Mary Royal. She went through the disclosures of Hope, Curtis, and Kevin. Because Hope was Sara’s biological child (and so young), we felt like her disclosures of the defendant forcing Kevin to eat different food from the rest of the family and punishing him for stealing food was very important. The defense had suggested that the boys wanted to lie to go back to their biological mother (even though we didn’t see any evidence of that), but what was Hope’s motive for her disclosures?
Finally, the boys’ step-grandma, Sharon, with whom they had been placed for over a year, testified. When the boys came to live with her, Sharon said she kept finding pudding cups in their pillowcases, cookies under the mattresses, and snacks hoarded all over their room. Sharon and the boys’ grandpa promised them they could have as much food as they wanted, but they had to eat it in the kitchen because Sharon didn’t want mice or roaches in the house. The boys, however, continued to hoard food in their bedroom.
“We finally brought the boys into the kitchen and showed them a bunch of snacks,” she testified. “We told them, ‘We have put all your favorite snacks on the counter. You can have them day or night and as much as you want. We promise we will keep them stocked. But the only rule is you have to eat them at the kitchen bar.’” Finally, the boys accepted they had plenty of food and stopped hoarding it.
Sharon also testified that one day, she had left a bottle of vinegar on the counter (she used vinegar in their water well). When Kevin saw it, he panicked and asked, “Grandma, why do you have that out?” She also testified to the nightmares the boys had and the extreme stress they were under any time Sara came up in conversation. For example, when the attorney ad litem went to see them, Kevin flunked all of his tests the next day and Curtis plucked out all of his eyebrows. The boys’ terror of Burkburnett and Sara Woody was so strong that simply being reminded about the case triggered intense fear they might be sent back to live with Sara and prompted these extreme manifestations of stress.
Sharon also testified that the boys frequently brought up the abuse at mealtimes. We thought this was telling because so much of Sara’s abuse centered on food and starvation.
The defendant testifies
For over four hours, Sara testified on direct. Her demeanor seemed off. She tried to make jokes with the jury, but the jurors just stared back at her, stone-faced. When the defense attorney asked her if she ever made Kevin and Curtis lick the toilet, she giggled and said no.
She reminded us a lot of Jack Nicholson’s character at the end of A Few Good Men when he bragged about ordering the Code Red. It felt like she wanted to tell us that she did everything the boys said and that they deserved it, but she held back because she would go to prison if she did.
For example, she testified that her miscarriage was caused by stress and that “a few of the children were more stressful at that time.” On cross, she had to admit that Kevin, whom she was homeschooling with his significant intellectual needs (he had an IQ of 77) was the most stressful child. With those admissions, it was easy to believe Kevin when he said that Sara had called him a murderer for killing the baby in her belly. She also cried only for herself: the stress she had been under, the trauma of the miscarriage, etc. She claimed she had starved herself for the family to have food, but she omitted the fact she was getting $700 a month in food stamps.
Because she homeschooled all the children, she testified that she used a technique where you don’t read about a bug but you show the kids a bug. This was interesting to us because in crossing Kevin, the defense attorney got him to say that Sara read Chapter 3 of the Book of James to them, the passage about the tongue being a world of evil and set on fire by hell. (Remembering Curtis’ second interview, I later argued in closing that Sara used a cigarette lighter let her stepson feel the “fire of hell” on his tongue.)
Finally, on direct, she said, “I stick to my rules. Rules in a large house are important. If you don’t stick to them, you get chaos.”
On cross, she turned super-cagey with us. She claimed that she saw Kevin’s busted lip (the injury that first brought the family to authorities’ attention with the boy’s visit to the emergency room) but that she never saw his black eyes. When John approached to have her demonstrate how close she would have to be to Kevin to inspect his lip, she flipped out. “Don’t get close to me!” she exclaimed. Misty, John’s co-counsel, then demonstrated. Sara claimed she couldn’t see the black eyes because they used natural lighting, then she switched and said it was because she was sitting in the recliner.
Sara also claimed that she almost never saw the boys without their shirts on and that Kevin often “slapped himself” all over, so that was probably where his bruises came from. She also claimed he was thriving in her care and that “he just has a small stature” when we confronted her with his weight (he was 61 pounds as a 12-year-old). She had no answer as to why he would gain nine pounds the first three weeks being out of her care and 35 pounds in the first year.
Finally, Sara, for all her rehearsed answers, was not expecting to be questioned about a trip to Six Flags. Her husband Jonathan’s employer rented out Six Flags for employees and their families, and Sara wouldn’t let Kevin ride any rides with his siblings because he was in trouble. At first Sara said she didn’t remember that happening, and then she claimed the punishment was a mutual decision between her and her husband and that it lasted for only 30 minutes. In rebuttal, we called Kevin’s uncle, who had also been at Six Flags, and he testified that Kevin’s restriction lasted all day, that it was all Sara’s idea, and that he and Jonathan had conspired to get Kevin away from Sara so the poor kid could ride something at Six Flags.
Our themes in closing were scapegoating, parentification, and child torture. Kevin clearly was a scapegoat. Sara taught the other children he wasn’t worthy of respect, blamed problems on him (for example, telling his siblings they couldn’t have chocolate chip pancakes because Kevin stole the chocolate chips), and held him so the little ones could physically abuse him.
Kevin was also subject to parentification. Sara gave him a list of chores: vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, keeping house, taking care of his siblings, and fixing their breakfast. With Kevin’s intellectual shortcomings, he wasn’t able to keep up with his homeschool work while also taking care of the house. He constantly failed and constantly felt Sara’s wrath.
Finally, we explained child torture to the jury and asked how two kids with IQs of 77 and 82 make up a story that exactly fits the pattern of child torture? I doubt Gillian Flynn, author of such crime novels as Gone Girl, could make up these facts, much less these poor kids. The jury convicted on all three counts of serious mental injury and 13 counts of physical abuse and sentenced Sara Woody to 45 years.
While we were pleased with the sentence, the victory was bittersweet as the words of Dr. Bruce Perry were hard to forget: “Children are not resilient; children are malleable. In the process of ‘getting over it,’ elements of their true emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social potential are diminished—some percentage of capacity is lost, a piece of the child is lost forever.”
The hope we took from the trial is that the children are in safe, loving placements with plenty of food, kindness, and compassion, and Sara is locked up where she can never harm them again.
1 Tex. Penal Code §22.04.
2 Tex. Penal Code §22.04(a)(2).
3 See Stuhler v. State, 281 S.W.3d 706 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007).
4 See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Art. 38.071 §3(a).
5 Child Torture as a Form of Child Abuse, by Dr. Barbara Knox, et. al, Journal of Child Adolescent Trauma. If you have a child torture case, this article is so helpful and enlightening. (A copy of it as a PDF is below.)