published Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

Young lives cut short: Cases shine light on severe child abuse in Hamilton County

Lowry Arrest Report
Lowry Arrest Report

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    Hamilton County authorities are investigating the death of Dakota Arndt, 3, who died Friday.

Rhasean Lowry told police the injuries to his girlfriend's daughter were an accident.

He said 3-year-old Tatiana Emerson slipped on the steps of the Econo Lodge on Bonny Oaks Drive on the morning of Aug. 26. He said she banged her head on the handrail and fell to the bottom of the stairs. He said he carried her to their motel room, saw the blood seeping from her mouth and immediately drove her to the hospital.

On the way there, he said, she complained over and over that her head hurt. Eventually she lost consciousness.

A day later, doctors pronounced Tatiana dead.

Police say they don't believe Lowry's story, and they have charged the 34-year-old with criminal homicide and two counts of child abuse -- once on account of Tatiana, once on account of her 5-year-old brother, who told investigators that Lowry beat him, according to an incident report. Lowry is scheduled to appear Tuesday before Hamilton County Sessions Court Judge Christine Sell.

Lowry is the second man arrested in Hamilton County within 24 hours on charges of beating a toddler to death. Like Lowry, 23-year-old Justin Dale Bradley is accused of killing his girlfriend's child. And like Tatiana, Dakota Arndt was only 3 years old.

In that case, according to the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, Dakota's uncle came home Aug. 27 and heard Bradley yelling "Wake up!" at the toddler. Bradley told investigators he threw the child into an empty bathtub, left him there and later found him lying motionless, according to an incident report. He said he did it because Dakota needed to take a bath.

Bradley remained in the Hamilton County Jail on Tuesday on a $1 million bond. He has been charged with criminal homicide.

With their jarring violence, the two cases focus a spotlight toward a crime that is quieter and more frequent than most realize. Within the last year, police officers and state officials reported 563 cases of "severe" physical and sexual abuse to the Children's Advocacy Center of Hamilton County between July 2013 and June 30 of this year.

The worst year was the one just prior, with 612 cases. The number of cases spiked after the Great Recession and hasn't receded, the experts said.

"We're not talking about cases of excessive discipline or minor cases," said Shelley McGraw, executive director of the the Children's Advocacy Center of Hamilton County. "These are the worst of the worst."

The center coordinates interviews, medical examinations and therapy for child abuse victims referred by law enforcement or children's protective services.

In almost all cases, the abuse came at the hands of a trusted adult. Experts at the Tennessee Children's Advocacy Center say children under the age of 6, such as Dakota and Tatiana, are the most vulnerable.

That's one reason that child abuse tends to be one of the most underreported crimes, McGraw said.

"We've done a good job of making sure people know this [child abuse] is a widespread problem," said McGraw. "But we've just not done a good job at intervening and having action behind that awareness."

From 2008 to 2012, more than 47,800 children in Tennessee and 106,234 in Georgia were victims of maltreatment -- which includes neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse -- data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show.

In 80 percent of such cases nationally, parents perpetrated the abuse. Other relatives accounted for 6 percent. Unmarried partners in positions like that of Bradley and Lowry committed 4 percent of the crime.

"These children are being put in a situation, oftentimes repeatedly, to be victimized by someone they know and trust," said McGraw.

In Tatiana's case, police say Lowry's story didn't line up with medical evidence and video surveillance. A child abuse specialist told investigators that Tatiana could not have died the way Lowry described. The girl died from blunt force trauma, from somebody beating her in the head.

And she didn't fall into unconsciousness in the car, the police incident report said.

Hotel security cameras captured Lowry carrying Tatiana's limp body down the stairs from his second-floor motel room to his vehicle. Then, before leaving the Econo Lodge parking lot, Lowry stopped at the front office to pay for another night in Room 203.

Tatiana's mother, 22-year-old Melanie Emerson, did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.

Lowry remained in the Hamilton County Jail on Tuesday.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6673.

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