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Experts: Surviving siblings need stability, love

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

A stable home with a consistent and loving adult will be key to the recovery of two Detroit children who survived a house of horrors on Detroit’s east side, where the bodies of their beaten and burned siblings were kept in a freezer.

The surviving 8-year-old boy and 17-year-old girl were aware for more than a year that the freezer in their living room contained the bodies of their brother, 9-year-old Stephen Berry, and sister, 13-year-old Stoni Blair. The oldest girl was forced to place her little sister’s body into the deep freeze. And both surviving children showed evidence of extreme physical abuse when examined by doctors at DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

Dr. Robert Lagrou, psychiatrist and medical director at Henry Ford Kingswood Hospital, a psychiatric facility for children, teens and adults, said the case is among the worst he’s heard of in Detroit, which has the highest child homicide rate among cities its size or larger in the United States. The Detroit News is not identifying the surviving children to protect their privacy.

“There’s no amount of therapy that’s going to replace waking up with an adult figure in the home that is safe and secure, to bring the stress level down ... so they can begin to build attachments with other people,” Lagrou said.

The surviving children of Mitchelle Blair have been placed with a great-aunt, Angela Gordon, 58, a retired Detroit police child abuse investigator.

Gordon said the children are in counseling provided by the state Department of Human Services.

Blair has been charged with multiple counts of child abuse, and more charges could follow after autopsies of the dead children, which found that Stoni died of blunt force trauma and Steven of blunt force trauma and burns.

“If these kids have to participate in some kind of a trial, that is going to be re-traumatizing for them,” Lagrou said. “... No one should have to go through what they went through, let alone have to re-experience it at a trial.”

The surviving children may face lifetimes of mental and physical health challenges, according to a growing body of research on the impacts of trauma on children.

Such horrific abuse as that suffered by Blair’s children can affect every aspect of a child’s future life, from physical and mental health to academic performance, employment prospects and their social relationships.

A growing body of research shows kids who grow up under constant stress face future health risks, including higher rates of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Studies by Dr. Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and an expert on the effects of toxic stress on children, found exposure to early adversity can affect children’s brain and biological development in the long term.

Other studies have discovered toxic effects of trauma and stress on the body’s cells.

Children who experience trauma at an early age often compartmentalize their personalities, breaking off bits that make it harder for them to survive, Henry Ford’s Lagrou said.

A tough journey lies ahead for the children, who were taken out of school sometime after the killings and were barred even from seeing their fathers, Langrau added.

“This case is particularly bad because it has signs they were completely isolated from normal experiences, like school, where you could have a teacher or coach who can act as a mentor, essentially a parent figure,” he said.

“If these kids were isolated from even that, it makes things so much harder.”