Four years ago, six-year-old Seth Martinez went from being a normal, rambunctious little boy to a permanently disabled, legally blind child with a brain injury. He’s unable to communicate, unable to swallow and completely dependent on others for his care.
On March 29, 2013, Seth became a victim of child abuse. Almost exactly four years later, on March 17, his abuser — stepgrandmother Melissa Pittman, 37, of Bradfordsville — was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“I thought my grandson was going to die,” Denise Depappa said. “But, he’s got God on his side. That little boy is a fighter.”
Meanwhile, Seth continues to receive 24-hour care at the Home of the Innocents in Louisville, where he suffers from a brain injury, seizure disorder, blindness, chronic constipation, muscle spasms and muscle spasticity. He’s unable walk, read or speak, but he can smile.
And his smile can light up a room.
“He’s an amazing little boy,” Depappa said. “He’s the happiest little fellow you could ever meet in your life.”
What happened to Seth?
On March 29, 2013, Seth was taken to Taylor Regional Hospital by Pittman, who had been appointed his guardian at the time. He was unresponsive, and was flown to University of Kentucky Hospital with a suspected brain bleed. His body was totally stiff, his eyes were dilated and he was completely unresponsive, according to medical records. Doctors also noted in his records that he had new and old bruises on his body.
At one point, Seth was believed to be brain dead.
“He was on life support. Doctors didn’t think he was going to make it,” Depappa said. “They suggested for us to take him off life support, and said he would pass away within hours. They let us say our goodbyes.”
But, Seth continued to fight. Hours turned into days and Seth was still alive. He remained at UK Hospital until May, when he was transferred to the Home of the Innocents because his family was unable to provide the 24-hour care that he needed to survive.
Seth was diagnosed with pediatric abusive head trauma, child physical abuse, and severe medical neglect. As a result of his injuries, he is completely dependent on others for every aspect of his care. He’s unable to communicate and can’t do anything, even swallow, for himself.
While Pittman claimed Seth’s injuries were the result of falling in the bathtub, a joint investigation between the Department of Community Based Services and the Kentucky State Police began shortly after Seth was initially taken to the hospital. Based upon his injuries and the facts and circumstances reported during the investigation, a Marion County grand jury indicted Pittman on Aug. 16, 2013, alleging first-degree criminal abuse. She pleaded not guilty.
The case continued to be investigated and prepared up to the time of trial, which occurred on Nov. 7-9, 2016. After hearing the evidence, the jury convicted Pittman of first-degree criminal abuse and first-degree persistent felony offender. Pittman had previously been convicted of two or more felonies, including first-degree possession of a controlled substance and receiving stolen property over $300. The jury recommended a sentence of 20 years to be served in a state penitentiary. On March 16, 2017, Marion Circuit Court Judge Allan Bertram accepted the recommendation of the jury and sentenced Pittman to 20 years in prison. Pittman has not yet filed an appeal, but time remains for her to do so.
Seth continues to fight for his life
Depappa, who now has custody of Seth, said the past four years have been a nightmare.
“I’ve been a very, very bitter person for the past four years,” she said.
Depappa said she is forever grateful for the attorneys who presented her grandson’s abuse case in court. Commonwealth’s Attorney Shelly S. Miller and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorneys Angela M. Call and Jeremy A. Wood, as well as Victim’s Advocate Leticia Newton all participated in the investigation, preparation and trial of this case.
“I can’t give them enough praise,” Depappa said. “They really cared. They put their heart and soul into that case.”
Depappa hopes to eventually bring Seth home from the Home of the Innocents, but she’s currently unable to care for him due to her work schedule. However, she tries to go visit him every weekend, if at all possible.
Seth requires multiple medications to manage his complex medical needs, and will likely need additional surgeries and likely an implanted device to deliver medicine to his spine to manage the effects of spasticity, according to his attending physician, Dr. Corrie Harris, at the Home of the Innocents. He receives physical therapy, restorative nursing and speech therapy several times a week.
According to Depappa, Seth just recently got off a feeding tube and began eating pureed food, which is a big step.
“He’s definitely not a vegetable,” Depappa said. “He’s very aware. He knows who we are. He’s such a special little boy.”
Child sexual and physical abuse awareness and prevention
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jeremy Wood said it takes the effort of multiple people to discover and resolve child abuse cases, including police officers, social workers, lab technicians, nurses, doctors, victims, victim’s families and concerned citizens who often report suspected abuse and testify about things they have observed.
“The goal is to prevent child physical and sexual abuse from occurring in the first place,” Wood said in an email to the Enterprise. “The police and social workers and the prosecutors at the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office do everything they can to investigate and prosecute allegations of abuse or neglect, but often only get involved after serious incidents have occurred. Police, social workers and sometimes medical personnel are the first responders to these events and they rely upon the honesty and integrity of the citizens of our community to report any instance of abuse or suspected abuse against a child.”
The potential consequences of child abuse range from minor injuries to prolonged impairment or death, according to Wood, and unfortunately the authorities sometimes cannot intervene or don’t get involved in time to prevent abuse. Prosecutors, police officers and social workers conduct Multidisciplinary Team (MDT) meetings regularly to ensure the effective and efficient sharing of information regarding child and sexual abuse investigations in order to better protect the public, Wood said.
On the state level, a number of resources have been devoted to assisting victims of crime, including children, since the Kentucky legislature passed the Victims’ Bill of Rights Act of 1986. A number of other resources can be found by visiting the Attorney General’s webpage, http://ag.ky.gov/Pages/default.aspx, or by contacting the Attorney General’s Office of Victims Advocacy at 1024 Capital Center Drive, Frankfort, Kentucky 40601, 502-696-5312 or the Crime Victim Hotline at 1-800-372-2551.
If you believe that a child may be the victim of sexual or physical abuse, there are several local and state resources available for reporting suspected abuse or gaining information, including:
- Marion County Sheriff’s Office – 270-692-3051
- Lebanon Police Department – 270-692-2121
- Marion County Office for Protection and Permanency – 270-692-3135
- Kentucky State Police Post 15 – 1-800-222-5555
- Kentucky Domestic Violence Association – 502-209-5382
- Kentucky Sex Offender Alert Line – 1-866-564-5652
- National Domestic Violence Hotline – 1-800-799-7233
- Spouse Abuse Shelter Hotline – 1-800-544-2022
- Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network – 1-800-656-4673
- Support for parents and children caring for children – 1-800-CHILDREN (244-5373)
- Department for Community Based Services Central Intake – 1-888-403-5090
- Child abuse in Kentucky - Did you know?
- 75,710 children were involved in child abuse/neglect reports to the Department for Community Based Services in 2016; of those, 28,496 were substantiated or in need of services.
- In Marion County, in 2016, there were 261 calls reporting child abuse to Child Protective Services.
- Neglect is the most common for of maltreatment with 21,407 children involved in incidents of neglect.
- Substance abuse was documented as a risk factor in 61 percent of the reports.
- 47 percent of children in substantiated or services needed reports were age five or younger.
- There has been an 11 percent increase in the number of unique children in substantiated or services needed reports from 2012 to 2016.
* Information provided by Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky.