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Kenai Whyte was a child left in danger

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Ashley Young is the mother of 3-year-old Kenai Whyte.
Ashley Young is the mother of 3-year-old Kenai Whyte.

Ashley Young knew her son was in danger of being hurt. She was wrong, it seems, about who would do the hurting.

Young thought little Kenai Whyte's father, Dave Whyte, was a danger to him — and she had good reason to think so. But prosecutors say it was Whyte's wife, Marie Buie, who beat the child horribly on Jan. 31. The 3-year-old died two days later.

The court documents and police reports are gut-wrenching reading. From the day he was born, the toddler who loved firetrucks and Lightning McQueen was surrounded by threats and fear, the adults in his life battling and abusing each other, sometimes over him.

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"I feel as if my child is in danger with his father," Young wrote in a 2013 filing. "If he can beat on me and abuse me, I feel he can do the same to my son."

Kenai's father left a trail of police reports and restraining orders testifying to his abusiveness. Young said Whyte's violence drove her to a shelter for domestic abuse victims. And later, she took out restraining orders against Whyte for pushing her against a wall and for visiting Kenai's day care center to try to get her new address.

Kenai Whyte.
Kenai Whyte.

And she wasn't the only one afraid of him. Police called to Whyte's home in August of 2013 reported that he had pulled Buie's hair and cut her hand. A year later, he was charged with assault and battery after he grabbed Buie by the throat. His mother, too, took out a restraining order against Whyte around the same time, saying her son had threatened to kill her.

Buie was trouble, too, according to police reports. She was twice arrested for assault and battery: once for stabbing a neighbor and once for hitting Whyte with a bottle, biting him, and pushing him down some stairs because, she told police, she was frustrated that he had left her to care for Kenai alone.

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As ever in these impossible cases, it fell to the state to find a path for Kenai through the morass. The Department of Children and Families had been watching him since he was a baby, and checkups showed he was doing fine. A spokeswoman would not say whether DCF ran criminal background checks on the parents' partners, citing privacy concerns. New rules announced Monday will make those checks mandatory.

If the probate judges mediating custody disputes between Young and Whyte knew about the father's propensity for violence, they were apparently unperturbed by it. Whyte was granted full legal custody and half-physical custody of Kenai. Young, representing herself before the court (Whyte had an attorney), tried to change that late last year, but she missed a court date after her baby was born prematurely. So Whyte prevailed.

It is possible that, presented with this cavalcade of dysfunction, the court came to the measured (but mistaken) conclusion that Kenai was safe in his father's home.

It is possible, too, that what happened here is what happens too often when family court judges are presented with allegations of domestic abuse: The victim of the abuse is disbelieved and penalized. Their fragile state in the courtroom can make them seem disruptive or irrational. Worse, abusers can convince judges that the victims are using abuse claims to gain greater custody rights.

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Courts can focus too hard on the breach between the parents, losing track of who is hitting whom — and whether the violence also endangers the child.

"Judges seem to care more about parental alienation," said David Adams, head of Emerge, a counseling program for abusers. "So much so, that some victims' attorneys aren't even raising domestic violence in custody disputes."

Whatever the reason, Young lost her bid to have her son spend less time in his father's home. So there Kenai was, alone with Buie on the January night prosecutors say she brutally beat him.

You would like to think his parents fought this hard over their child because they both treasured him and wanted to protect him. But then you have to confront the realization that even a little boy as loved as Kenai Whyte seems to have been left in harm's way to die.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com.