Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

Child at center of abuse case testifies


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Bessemer - Jurors heard from the alleged victim Wednesday in the trial of a Bessemer man accused of child abuse as the prosecution wrapped up its case in Gogebic County Circuit Court.

Matthew James LaPlant, 31, is charged with one count of first degree child abuse, two counts of second degree child abuse and one count of unlawful imprisonment. All four counts are felonies, with first degree child abuse carrying a potential maximum sentence of up to life in prison.

The child - who recently turned 8 - testified via video link from another room in the courthouse regarding the alleged abuse he said LaPlant inflicted upon him over the course of several months. The alleged abuse ended when he and his mom left the Barber Street residence they were living in with LaPlant and went to the DOVE shelter in Ironwood.

He testified he didn't like LaPlant, who he said was mean to him.

"He would take a shoe and beat me, (or use) a spatula or a belt," the victim testified, regarding the physical abuse he said LaPlant committed. He said LaPlant sometimes threw the objects at him, and other times used them to hit him. LaPlant also allegedly hit him with his hand. After initially saying no, the child corrected himself and said the blows occasionally left marks.

Along with the physical abuse, the child said he was put into a dog kennel as punishment and sometimes a screwdriver was used to lock the cage.

While he said he could remove the screwdriver from inside the cage, the child said he couldn't leave the kennel without getting yelled at. He described LaPlant's voice as, "mean and angry."

He testified there were times he would be kept in the kennel at night.

"That's where I had to sleep," the alleged victim testified.

Prevented from going to use the bathroom while in the kennel, the child said he sometimes had accidents and was forced to put his dirty underwear in his mouth as further punishment.

"I would pee my pants and then he would tell me to take them off, put new underwear on and then ... he would make me to put them in my mouth," the victim testified.

He also, at one point in his testimony, corrected himself regarding whether LaPlant called him names - ultimately saying he did - and said he was sprayed with a bottle and made to eat peppers he didn't like as punishment for "not listening."

The child repeatedly used the word "terrible" to describe how the various actions made him feel.

He also talked about how his mom treated him, saying while she also put him in the kennel and hit him with a belt at times it wasn't as hard as when LaPlant did and the kennel wasn't locked with a screwdriver.

Following her testimony at an earlier hearing in the case, the victim's mother was also charged with the same four felonies LaPlant is facing. Her case is still in the court system.

While being cross-examined by LaPlant's attorney, Douglas Muskett, the child acknowledged he previously had testified his mother never hit him or called him names. He said he didn't remember her doing it at the previous court hearing.

Following the alleged victim's testimony, Jamie-Ann Dieterle - a licensed clinical social worker - testified regarding the psychological impact the alleged abuse has had on the child.

"It is my clinical opinion (the child) has received serious psychological harm, in addition to the physical abuse he suffered," Dieterle testified. "This young man will not be the same again. His childhood has been forever changed."

She said he would benefit from ongoing therapy and would need support across all aspects of his life if he was going to be successful.

She discussed the various parts of the assessment process she used to reach her conclusions, testified LaPlant was the only one identified at the time as allegedly abusing the victim, what she observed during the assessment process and explained the potentially life-long impact the abuse could have.

She said the child had difficulties with sensory processing, needing "much more" stimulus than other children while being averse to loud noises. She also testified he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, while diagnosing him as having a rare hair-pulling disorder when subjected to stress.

Dieterle said the level of detail and emotions the child showed during the assessment were something that couldn't have been faked or coached.

Even if someone else abused the victim, she said the determinations made in the assessment would stay valid.

"The experiences (the child) described and presented during the assessment process provide a very extensive history of ... severe and pervasive abuse that took place over the course of a year," Dieterle testified. "Trauma is something that has compounding effects, so the more trauma a child experiences the greater the effects are on that person."

When cross-examined by Muskett regarding the abuse allegedly inflicted by the child's mother, she testified the child viewed LaPlant as the sole source of his abuse regardless of the number of abusers.

"(The child) doesn't recognize any of (the abuse) happening at the hands of (his mother). (He) attributes his abuse directly to Matt LaPlant," Dieterle said.

When questioned later by Wittla, Dieterle explained the child may not have initially revealed the abuse from his mother as she was a constant in his life and he would in effect be orphaned if something happened to her.

As he felt safer in his current foster situation, Dieterle said he could have felt more ready to reveal her alleged abuse.

The prosecution's final witness was Gogebic County Sheriff's Department deputy Daniel McRae, who resumed from where his testimony left off Tuesday regarding his interview of LaPlant.

McRae said LaPlant initially denied being aware of the alleged victim being placed in the dog kennel, later he said he remembered the child's mother putting him in the kennel but was unaware he spent the night in it. McRae also testified LaPlant said he was a heavy sleeper and wouldn't know if the child's mother put him in the crate once LaPlant was asleep.

Muskett questioned why McRae didn't do a more thorough investigation, choosing not to conduct more interviews or look at the possibility the mother was abusing the child until after she admitted it at the prior hearing in this case. McRae testified the mother admitted to the child being in a dog kennel 20-30 times, hitting him, and other acts at a second interview after the hearing.

McCrae said the investigation would have continued regardless of the hearing, saying the case was a little slower in coming together.

Following Gogebic County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Tracie Wittla resting her case, Muskett called several of LaPlant's relatives and family friends to testify regarding the relationship between LaPlant, the victim and the victim's mother.

All four defense witnesses called Wednesday testified they had never had any issues with LaPlant caring for their children, with several saying they wouldn't hesitate to leave their children with him in the future.

They also testified regarding the relationship between the child and his mother. They said she frequently insulted the child, hit him and made him stand in a corner or sit up straight on the couch as punishment.

Today's court appearance is expected to feature additional testimony from defense witnesses, with the possibility of closing arguments if the defense finishes its case before the end of the day.