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Cathy Free: Mom’s story shows tragedy of child abuse

SHARE Cathy Free: Mom’s story shows tragedy of child abuse

Sometimes, Dianne Miller will be strolling through a mall or a school and she'll catch a flash of the way things should have been.

She might see a 14-year-old boy, jostling his friends, trying to impress a girl, or maybe she'll spot a couple of lanky teens playing Frisbee at lunchtime on a junior high's front lawn.

At times like these, she feels sad and, often, angry. For the past 12 years, whenever she closes her eyes, it's hard not to drift back to Aug. 26, 1993.

Her youngest son, Cooper, was almost 2 then; a cheerful toddler with bright blue eyes and curly red hair. Almost potty-trained, he was learning to talk in complete sentences, recognize letters and catch a ball. Then, that summer afternoon, the unthinkable happened.

Recently remarried, Dianne had left Cooper and his 4-year-old brother, Reese, at home with her new husband while she took her daughter, McKenzie, to get a haircut. When the stylist informed her that she was running behind, Dianne called "Joe" (not his real name) to let him know she'd be a little late.

"Where are you? You'd better get home now! Cooper's not breathing," Joe told her. "He fell off the couch."

Dianne raced home, where she found her husband watching a basketball game on television while Cooper lay gasping for air on the sofa. His eyes were rolled back, his skin was gray. Joe hadn't bothered to call 911.

As they rushed Cooper to the hospital, Dianne knew that Joe's story was suspicious. So did nurses, who locked her and Joe in a waiting room and called the police. Doctors said that Cooper had been severely shaken, causing extensive brain damage. You'll be lucky, Dianne was told, if he lives another hour.

Today, Dianne hugs her son close each day, knowing that he's a miracle. But Cooper can't speak, isn't toilet-trained and walks with a limp. Although he's 14, he has the mental capacity of a 3-year-old. Tall and lanky, he plays with a toddler's tool kit and a computer toy that lights up and plays the alphabet song.

He's a teenager, says Dianne, who never grew up.

Eager to tell her story and share the dangers of shaken baby syndrome, Dianne recently met me for a Free Lunch of turkey club sandwiches, not far from her home in Hooper. Her ex-husband did only three months in jail for nearly killing Cooper in a moment of rage, and he's now remarried and has a new family.

"To this day, he denies that he did anything to Cooper," says Dianne, who now takes her son to a school program for the severely disabled. "I'd like to see stiffer penalties for people who do this. They call it an 'accident,' but there's a lifelong consequence. It affects every family member, up and down the line."

Reese Miller wishes that he could race horses with his younger brother and talk to him about country music. McKenzie would like to take Cooper to the movies or sit at the table with him and play a board game.

"They'd like to be able to have a conversation, know what he's thinking," says Dianne. "It's still hard for all of us. You see a 14-year-old kid listening to an iPod or buying a pair of jeans and you think, 'That's what Cooper should be doing.' "

Dianne has a message for anyone who might be on the verge of rage, frustrated by a baby's crying. "Put the baby in the crib and call a neighbor," she says. "Take a drive around the block. Get away."

If Joe had left his basketball game and walked outside to take a deep breath, says Dianne, "my son would be a happy, normal teenager today."

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com. You can also write me at the Deseret Morning News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.