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7-year-old's tiny body shows gradual wasting

Wednesday, April 22, 1998

By Sharon Voas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Seven-year-old Tausha Lanham must have wasted away for months before her body was found Sunday in the West Virginia woods.

Dr. Basil Zitelli, a pediatrician who is part of a special group at Children's Hospital that handles complicated and difficult cases from the Tri-State area, said it's exceedingly rare for a 7-year-old to weigh less than 12 pounds.

Tausha was 3 feet tall and weighed just 11.77 pounds when she died.

"I have trouble believing a normal 6-year-old would suddenly waste away to 12 pounds unless something else was going on," Zitelli said. "Just the (skeleton) of a normal 7-year-old would come close to weighing that.

"Without having performed an autopsy, I would suspect that whatever caused the wasting went on for longer than a year."

The girl was the average height of a 33-month-old child; the average height of a girl her age is 3 feet 8 inches to 4 feet 4 inches. The average weight is 38 to 66 pounds.

Tausha, who had been born premature and underweight and experienced developmental delays, must have been plagued with multiple medical problems, Zitelli said.

"Someone with this degree of growth retardation and malnutrition and special needs would (require) intensive medical care," he said.

That makes him ask: Had anyone ever taken her to a doctor?

Any doctor who saw a child in her condition would have investigated, he said.

Her small size at birth may have contributed to her stunted growth, but that alone could not have left her so underweight.

Zitelli has seen families in which one child was abused and others were not.

Tausha's mother had three other children, two girls aged 9 and 3 and a 6-month-old boy.

"Children who have special needs are at higher risk for neglect and abuse," he said. "Thank goodness, the vast majority of families who have special-needs children are diligent in their care."

But among families in which one child is abused, the abuse almost always comes in one burst of anger, not over a long period.

"It's very uncommon to overtly starve a child," he said.

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