Lebanon’s Tekla Hess never knew the signs of child abuse.
“It’s one of those things that you don’t know the signs because you’ve never been around it,” said Hess. “None of my children were ever abused.”
So when Hess’s granddaughter, Kayla Hess, – just 2 1/2 at the time – didn’t want to go home after weekends at grandma’s house, Hess didn’t really think anything about it.
Kayla, Hess’ son Jeff’s daughter, was Hess’ first grandchild. When Jeff and Kayla’s mom, Tammy Goad, divorced, Kayla moved to Dixson with Tammy.
But Kayla spent nearly every weekend at grandma’s house in Lebanon.
“She just loved being here,” said Hess.
She just thought Kayla was having so much fun that she didn’t want it to end.
Hess knew Tammy’s new boyfriend was living with them, but she took it in stride – Tammy was just moving on with her life after the divorce.
Hess thought he seemed like an OK guy.
But Kayla started getting hurt a lot.
“She had a big bruise on her back, and she told her mom she slipped and fell on the front porch,” said Hess. “Then all of a sudden, she had a broken leg – she said she slipped and fell off the bed.”
And the injuries continued.
“She had a kind of scrape mark or something on her head, and she said [another child] threw something at her at daycare,” said Hess.
Hess said the thought of abuse never crossed her mind.
“Things were happening to her all the time, but I thought maybe she was just clumsy like I am – I’m always running into something, or I’ve got a bruise here or a bruise there,” said Hess.
Kayla’s daycare became suspicious, though, and contacted the Department of Human Services in Lebanon.
“I guess the daycare had called them about the bruise on her back, and there was something on her face they thought looked like a handprint,” said Hess.
Hess took Kayla to DHS’s Lebanon office, and they were told to immediately take Kayla to a doctor, who determined the mark was not a handprint, but still told them to go to DHS’s Dixson office.
“They started asking us questions, and finally they said, ‘Is anybody living there?’ and I said ‘yeah, her boyfriend; he seems OK to us,’” said Hess.
DHS told Hess they would check into it.
“If they would’ve checked right then, we would’ve found out he was on probation for cutting up a man with a knife in a bar,” said Hess.
Instead, on Dec. 28, 1992, Hess got a phone call saying Kayla slipped and fell in the bathtub and was in the hospital.
When Hess and her family arrived at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Kayla was in a coma.
Later the same day, police told the family they didn’t believe she slipped and fell in the bathtub, said Hess.
Kayla was home alone with her mother’s boyfriend while her mother was at work.
Kayla died the next day, never waking from a coma.
“As it turned out, [Tammy’s boyfriend] did do it,” said Hess.
The 24-year-old pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 17 years in prison for Kayla’s death, plus an additional three years for violating probation.
“The judge asked him what had happened, and he said ‘a little girl got hurt,’” said Hess. “‘[The judge] asked, ‘Did you do it?’ and he said, ‘Well, I hit her, but I didn’t murder her. I didn’t kill her – I took her and rushed her to the hospital.’ The judge said, ‘She died as a result of this,’ and he said, ‘Well, that’s what they say.’”
According to Hess, Kayla died from a skull fracture.
“About six months after she died, I had this feeling in me – I didn’t hate him; I had no feelings toward this abuser,” said Hess. “I started thinking there was something wrong with me, so I sat down and talked with our pastor. He very graciously said to me, ‘You don’t understand how deep your belief is; God intervened in your life, and he took the hurt out of it.’”
And that’s when she made it her mission to stop other abusers.
Hess became involved with Child Abuse Prevention of Tennessee and Wilson’s Court Appointed Special Advocates program, and she’s publicly shared Kayla’s story in the hopes of raising awareness.
“I didn’t know anything was happening, didn’t even think about it,” said Hess. “But if I would’ve known all these things about how children get and watched for what does happen…”
Since Kayla’s death, Hess is among the front-runners raising awareness of child abuse in Wilson County.
Each April, which is Child Abuse Awareness Month, Hess – who is now a CASA board member – helps put out blue and silver pinwheels at the Wilson County Courthouse. And despite awareness efforts, authorities investigated 783 child abuse cases last year in Wilson County alone.
Hess said people should never be afraid to report suspicions of child abuse, regardless of whose family it is.
“You always think, ‘Oh, it just happens on TV,’” said Hess. “It doesn’t just happen to them.”
She said anyone suspecting child abuse is happening can call Wilson County CASA for advice on how to proceed.
“Just don’t ever be afraid,” said Hess.
For more information, visit wilsoncountycasa.org or call 615-443-2002.