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Bruises reported, were not enough to take toddler

Emil Whitis • Feb 28, 2014 at 1:31 PM

The last few moments of Owen Barker’s life were horrific.

So says Sandusky police, tasked with investigating the 3-year-old  boy’s murder Monday evening in a Fulton Street home. 

The Lucas County coroner’s preliminary autopsy report, released Wednesday, indicates the child sustained multiple blows to his small body. 

He was “beaten by another person,” the report states.

Police believe the assailant was Michael Milner, 24, who was entrusted with watching Owen that evening while the boy’s mother was at work.

Milner is being held in the Erie County jail on $180,000 bond, on charges of murder, felonious assault and child endangering. 

A complete list of the injuries shows Owen sustained heavy internal and external bruising to multiple areas on his head, lungs and abdomen. He also suffered internal cuts to his intestines and the base of his liver, as well as scrapes on his face, head and penis, according to the autopsy report. 

The report states the injury that killed the boy was a puncture to the top of his heart, likely caused by blunt force trauma — essentially a fatal blow to his torso.

In a recorded 911 call Monday evening, Milner is heard telling a dispatcher that Owen was injured when he tripped on a toy truck.

But the autopsy report also documents something else about Owen’s body: bruises from injuries sustained days or even weeks prior to the injuries that caused his death.

Erie County prosecutor Kevin Baxter said the boy’s mother, Danielle Flannery, 22, has retained an attorney.  

Milner is Flannery’s boyfriend, although he is not the father of Owen, police have said. 

Officials at the Erie County Department of Job and Family Services, meanwhile, said they did everything they could to help Owen after an incident last year, also involving Milner.

Newly released documents show county social workers investigated Milner on Aug. 19, 2011, after getting a report of abuse from Ashland County.

The report was made by Owen’s grandparents after they discovered bruises on the boy’s buttocks and scrotum while they were babysitting the toddler, who had just turned 2 years old at the time. 

Social workers saw the boy the same day the report was filed, Erie County Job and Family Services director Karen Balconi-Ghezzi said.

“By the time we saw it, the bruising had gone to the yellow stage,” Balconi-Ghezzi said. “It wasn’t substantial enough for charges.”

Sandusky police then interviewed Milner and Flannery, according to a police report.

During the interview, Flannery told police Milner had spanked Owen when she was at work.

“She stated Milner caught Owen climbing out of a second story window. Milner then gave Owen a spanking,” the police report said. “She said she does not think Milner realized how hard he hit Owen and she was sure he did not mean to harm Owen.”

Days later, Milner admitted to police that he bent the toddler over his knee and spanked him after catching the boy trying to go out the window.

“Milner said he feels horrible about the incident and did not mean to spank him that hard ... he did not mean to hurt Owen,” the report said. “Milner said he will never spank (Owen) again.”

That’s where talk of charges ended.

“There’s spanking and then there’s spanking,” Balconi-Ghezzi said. “If there is a break in the flesh or serious damage to the body, then it rises to the next level.”

After the interview, social workers were convinced of Milner’s regret.

“Everything seemed to indicate that they were a caring pair of people that wanted to make sure it never happened again,” Balconi-Ghezzi said. “The child was non-verbal at the time.”

Other than filing charges, the only thing social workers could do was separate the child from Milner. But that would have required an emergency removal order.

To obtain that the county would have had to convince a judge that Owen was in “imminent danger,” and that’s not what the facts showed at the time, Balconi-Ghezzi said. 

Rather, social workers saw the event as an opportunity to talk to Flannery about her situation.

“We offered daycare services and parenting classes,” Balconi-Ghezzi said. “At that point, it’s up to her.”

Erie County prosecutor Kevin Baxter said he has reviewed the case and determined that social workers are in the clear.

There’s a “huge movement” for agencies to respect the unity of a family, Baxter said. 

“You cannot just go in and take the children away without a really good reason,” Baxter said.

He pointed to a 1999 case where social workers at Erie County Job and Family Services tried to separate a man from his children after he spanked the kids.

After he was acquitted of child endangering charges, “Richard W.” sued to get his children back. In the end, the court of appeals ruled that the county had overstepped its bounds.

The court not only granted custody to the father, but came back with a fiery condemnation of what social workers had tried to do.

“Normally, our analysis of the case would end upon our making that determination,” a court mandate said.

“We cannot, however, put this matter to rest without stating ... this court has been shocked by the behavior of (social workers) in this matter.”

The rebuke also seemed to be aimed at the fact that the involved boys, ages 3 and 11, were forced to undress multiple times in front of female social workers.

Baxter said there is no legal restriction on the age a child must be before a parent can spank them — even if the child is a 2-year-old.

It just has to be done in a  “reasonable” manner, Baxter said.

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