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Siblings to stay in foster care while agencies probe case

Wednesday, April 22, 1998

By Cindi Lash and Lynda Guydon Taylor, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Siblings of a Washington County girl whose emaciated body was found dumped over a West Virginia hillside will remain in foster care while state and county agencies investigate the handling of complaints that the girl was abused before she died.

In a closed proceeding yesterday, a Washington County juvenile court hearing officer ruled that the sisters and infant brother of Tausha Lanham, 7, of Burgettstown, should remain in protective custody rather than in the care of relatives for at least 10 days.

Children and Youth Services and state police removed the children from their Center Avenue home on Sunday, hours after Tausha's body -- weighing 11.77 pounds -- was discovered wrapped in a sheet and garbage bags near Follansbee, W.Va.

Tausha's mother, Michelle Tharp, 29, and Tharp's live-in boyfriend, Douglas Bittinger Sr., 25, are in the Washington County Jail, facing charges in Tausha's death.

The two initially told police that Tausha wandered away or was abducted from the Fort Steuben shopping mall in Steubenville, Ohio, prompting more than 100 people to search for her through the night. But Bittinger later led police to Tausha's body after telling them he struck her Friday night in their apartment, according to state police documents.

Fathers, grandparents and other relatives of Tharp's children -- Tonya McKee, 9; Ashley Tharp, 3; and Douglas Bittinger Jr., 6 months -- sought yesterday to persuade the hearing officer and Washington County Children and Youth Services to grant them custody.

But Trooper James McElhaney, who is overseeing the investigation of how Tausha died, said CYS first would conduct criminal and background checks to determine if the relatives are suitable guardians.

Hearings like yesterday's are not open to the public, but typically CYS caseworkers explain to the hearing officer why the children were removed from their residence and placed in protective custody. An order is then issued that remains in effect until a complete dependency hearing can be conducted.

At that more formal hearing, CYS must prove that there are grounds under state law to keep the children from the parents. Although there are eight reasons, the one used most often is that the parents failed to provide proper care and control for the child's emotional, physical and mental well-being.

If the judge decides the children should remain in foster care, CYS and the parents meet and list what the parents must do to get their children back. Their progress at meeting those goals is reviewed at court hearings every six months.

A federal law passed in November says CYS agencies don't have to try to return children to parents who have been convicted of murdering a sibling of the children in foster care.

While CYS officials conduct checks to determine where the children should be placed permanently, they also will work with state police and investigators from the state Department of Public Welfare to determine whether CYS responded properly after relatives and neighbors of Michelle Tharp reported their suspicious that Tausha was being abused and malnourished in the months prior to her death.

At least four Washington County women -- Tausha's paternal grandmother, a paternal aunt and two neighbors -- all have said they telephoned or visited CYS to voice concerns about Tausha's welfare.

Tausha's paternal grandmother, Margaret Lanham, 62, and her aunt, Rhonda Lanham, 27, both of Slovan, Washington County, have said they provided CYS caseworkers with photographs earlier this year, showing a gaunt child with a bruised head and cut lip.

Neighbors also said they contacted CYS to complain that Tharp beat Tausha with her hand, fist and a paddle, locked her in her room for hours by tying the door shut with string and refused to feed her adequately.

Upstairs neighbor Audrey Hython, who lives with and is engaged to Douglas Bittinger's brother, Harold, said she was among those who made complaints about Tausha. She said she knew of at least two occasions when Tharp deliberately hid Tausha with other relatives before CYS caseworkers arrived for appointments to visit the home and view the child.

CYS Director Richard Reddout has acknowledged that the agency "had a file on this family" that had been under investigation prior to Tausha's death. He said yesterday that caseworkers had been unable to review that file extensively, however, because their first priority was to prepare testimony for yesterday's custody hearing.

He said he had not been able yesterday to determine how many times a caseworker sought to see Tausha -- or if a caseworker had ever seen her. But he said CYS will cooperate with both state police and the Department of Public Welfare, which has ordered a review to determine if the case was handled properly.

"This is a total nightmare. But caseworkers do have to make choices in hundreds of these situations," he said. "We will have to look at the choices that were made in this situation. Unfortunately, in many cases families can put so much more energy into hiding from us than we can in tracking them down with limited resources."

Tausha, who stood just 3 feet tall, was developmentally delayed following a premature birth and her mother received a Social Security disability check each month for her, relatives said. But she was not attending school or special classes prior to her death.

Officials at the Burgettstown Area Elementary Center, where Tausha's sister Tonya is a student, said yesterday that they had tried repeatedly but failed to persuade Tharp to meet with them to enroll Tausha and arrange for special services for her. Tharp made, then broke, one appointment with guidance counselor Raymond Lounder and refused to make others or to return his calls, he said.

Tausha would have been in second grade had she been enrolled with other children of her age, Principal Richard Venanzi said. But district officials were unable to force Tharp to enroll her because, under state law, a student who does not attend school is not considered to be truant until he reaches age 8.

"We knew she was out there and we made repeated offers over the past year and a half to provide her with whatever assistance we could," Lounder said. "But our hands are tied when a parent refuses until the student turns 8. We had her on our list for this summer, expecting that she would have a birthday and something would have to be done."

Staff writer Barbara White Stack contributed to this report.

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