No one could believe it — not friends, not family, not neighbors and certainly not your Average Joe. A grandmother doesn’t beat her grandson to death. And Gloria Nelligan couldn’t have beaten her grandson to death, friends and family members maintain.
When news broke that 8-year-old Sha’hiim Nelligan was beaten to death, the neighborhood’s first response wasn’t outrage; it was confusion. How could no one have prevented this? Did anyone see signs? Didn’t the grandmother have custody of the boy to, in her own words, break a cycle of abuse and violence?
“I didn’t want to raise any more kids. I still don’t,” she said in a 2007 Gazette interview. “But, I mean, when’s it going to stop? I’m trying to break the cycle of abuse, of violence, for all my children.”
Nelligan was viciously beaten for years by her husband. Her own daughter, Sha’hiim’s mother, witnessed it growing up, and grew “angry and ready to fight,” Nelligan told the Gazette.
Nelligan filed for and won custody of then 2-year-old Sha’hiim when it became clear that his mother was making “irrational decisions” about his care, according to court papers. But recognizing that she had been attracted to abusive men herself, Nelligan took parenting classes, battered woman counseling and anger management lessons. She wanted Sha’hiim to have a better life than the one her daughter had.
He lived eight years. Nelligan, now 43, is charged with first-degree manslaughter and is in the Schenectady County jail.
Could anyone have foreseen his fate?
“The question shouldn’t be so much what can you see that indicates a kid is being abused,” said Christine Deyss, executive director at Prevent Child Abuse New York. “The question is, what do you see that indicates a family is under stress, and then under greater and greater stress? And so the question is what can you do and how can you reach out and help them do something about that stress?”
Deyss can list a slew of factors that tend to crop up in child abuse cases. The abuser tends to be a very young parent, she said. The family is usually financially stressed. They’re usually isolated, with no support system. And they tend to have their own history as victims — of sexual or physical abuse or drug and alcohol abuse.
She doesn’t have a pile of research to back it up, but Deyss has found that in her experience, neglect and abuse are more likely to occur in poorer households.
“Neglect, in particular, we’re having a problem getting a handle on,” she said. “Ultimately, until we grapple with the fact that we can’t allow families to not have places to live and enough food to eat, we won’t be able to prevent them all.”
Prevent Child Abuse New York, based in Albany, helps people find parenting courses, support groups, medical and legal aid, and abuse treatment. Overall, its mission is to provide the social, emotional and physical resources to families across the state as a way to combat child abuse.
There are many local agencies with similar missions that typically work outside a county’s social services and child protective services. The goal is to lay preventative groundwork before the abuse happens.
New York is ahead of the curve in fighting child abuse, according to Deyss. One initiative, in particular, has helped bring statewide abuse numbers down over the years, she said. Healthy Families New York, a home visiting program, screens participants to identify risk factors and stressors that a family might face, offers long-term, in-home services like connecting families with medical providers for prenatal and baby visits and immunizations, as well as connecting them with community resources that teach self-sufficiency and strong, positive relationships.
“In this area, there are three Healthy Families program, and one of the best ones in the state is in Schenectady,” said Deyss. “The focus is on making changes in families that have to do with supporting or strengthening them so they don’t get to the point of stress or disintegration or to the point of being abused.”
The program director of Healthy Schenectady Families could not be reached for this article.
Schenectady County spokesman Joe McQueen said the number of child abuse cases reported countywide has been stable over the last few years. The latest available county data is from 2009, and shows that Schenectady County’s Department of Social Services had 2,506 reported cases of child abuse. The number of nearby cases ranged from a low of 410 in rural Schoharie County to a high of 3,355 in Albany County.
Cases have increased slightly in Saratoga County, which reported 1,744 cases in 2009. Last year, there were 2,586 cases of child abuse reported, said DSS Deputy Commissioner Patrick Maxwell.
“Reports generally have gone up,” he said, “but I would like to think that it’s because of our efforts at social awareness. We go out to schools and day care centers, EMS agencies, some clinicians and law enforcement, and do education on what child abuse is, how to report it, the standards for reporting it, etc. So we try and build an awareness in the community.”
Maxwell is a little less sure about just where you’re likely to find child abuse. He has seen it crop up across all demographics and from unexpected sources. Some of it, he suspects, is environmental. If a child grows up in a home with drug and alcohol abuse, they are more likely to be abused. If there’s domestic abuse in the home, then child abuse is more likely.
“We see the whole spectrum, though,” he said. “We probably see it across all socioeconomic demographics. I don’t think it’s only in low-income families. I think it can occur in very well-respected families, ones a community would never be on the lookout for.”