Experts testify on baby's burns Woman is charged with child abuse in scalding of daughter

December 09, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

The trial of a Howard County woman charged with child abuse in the scalding of her 15-month-old daughter in a tub of water began yesterday in Howard County Circuit Court, with several medical experts and fire personnel testifying about the severity of the child's burns.

Mary V. Cabassa, now 20, of the 8500 block of Storch Woods Drive in Savage could face four to seven years in prison, prosecutors said, if convicted in the abuse of her daughter Skylar Nestar.

The jurors -- three women and nine men -- heard 911 tapes from Nov. 11, 1997, after Cabassa called to report her child had been burned. The jury saw about a dozen pictures of the girl's burns across her back, legs, feet and groin. The piercing screams of Skylar could be heard in the background of the five-minute-long tape, as an operator directed Cabassa to put the child in cold water.

In his opening statement Monday, defense attorney Sam Truette called the tape "shocking" and "gut-wrenching." Some jurors cringed as they listened to the screams and cries of Skylar, who suffered second- and third-degree burns to her lower body and back from the 135-degree tub water.

Prosecutor Cindy L. Johnson called the case one of "lies and pain" in her opening statement. "The lies are from Mary Cabassa. The pain is that of Skylar, a 15-month-old child who was scalded in a bathtub and burned over 48 percent of her body."

Johnson argued that Cabassa gave several conflicting statements to police officers, firefighters and medical staff at the burn unit of Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, where the girl was taken by helicopter and treated.

Truette said the burns were an accident. He cautioned the jury in his opening statements to not get caught up in the emotional impact of the 911 tapes and close-up pictures showing the child's burns, saying "you promised to move beyond that."

"The state's burden is more than to make you feel sorry for Skylar," he said. "You have to view it dispassionately, and view it in the terms of a 19-year-old mother who was clearly panicked and afraid for her daughter."

Truette described Cabassa as a young mother who has a 10th-grade education and "does not operate under the same standards as a full, educated adult would."

In the 911 tape, Cabassa is heard trying to console her frantic daughter. She says repeatedly, "You hold on. Mama's here. It's OK."

Cabassa yells, "Oh, my God! It's like peeling on her chest and front, too." She claims she was boiling water on her kitchen stove and pouring it into the bathtub with some bleach to clean stains off the walls. While she was in the kitchen, Skylar fell into the water, she told an operator.

As the child came running down the hallway to her, Truette said, Cabassa thought her daughter had "toilet paper" around her feet, "but it turned out it was her skin."

Cabassa, now pregnant with her second child, held her head in her hands as the tapes were played. Once, she appeared to dab away tears.

Since she was burned, Skylar has been in foster care, Johnson said.

Referring several times to pictures showing the child's scalded body, Gerrie Stancik, a social worker at Bayview Medical Center who specializes in working with burn victims, testified that because the burn marks were on the child's feet, her back and part of her left shoulder, "this child did not allegedly fall into the tub or climb into a tub of hot water."

If a child that age fell into a tub, she would have had head injuries from landing head first or she would have put her hands out to catch herself, leaving her with splash burn marks on her hands, arms and face, Stancik said.

Skylar spent 108 days in the Bayview burn unit and was released to her foster home.

Yesterday, after the director of the burn unit, Dr. Andrew M. Munster, told jurors that Skylar would have permanent scars over most of her body, her foster mother abruptly left the courtroom in tears.

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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