Those who know me may know Aiden Waller has changed my life the past month. I have been following his story closely. He is the reason I am back in school to become a social worker so I can do everything in my power to make sure this does not happen again. Here is the time line of his story.
He is 4 months old when someone finally notices.
He has a black eye.
Six months later, he is in the intensive care unit at an area hospital, gasping for breath.
All the while, his family - praying for his life and trying to make sense of what has happened - hopes the outer scars of the abuse he has suffered will be the only reminders of what he has endured.
Now, this baby, Aiden Waller, is a little more than 11 months old. His health is improving by the day. He remains at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah, where he has been for more than a month.
He's off life support and breathing on his own. He's taking a bottle and no longer requires a feeding tube. His brain swelling has subsided.
Family members say doctors don't know how far-reaching the extent of his injuries will be, only saying it will be a long road to progress.
Although Aiden's health is improving every day, each of those days brings another unanswered question.
How could a 19-year-old mother with a record of depression and abuse have custody of her child returned to her after only a few months of counseling?
What kind of parental counseling was she undergoing?
Who made the decision to return the baby?
Was there any judicial oversight on the decision to return custody of Aiden to his mother, or was it made solely by the staff of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services?
Were DFACS officials checking on Aiden as often as they should have been?
Did Aiden's father or any of the couple's other roommates, friends and family members know about the abuse? If so, why didn't they report it?
Officials at the local and state levels continue to investigate Aiden's case. Because it involves a child, officials will not provide any information about their findings.
But through extensive interviews and research, the Savannah Morning News has uncovered details of the case and the circumstances leading up to Aiden's abuse. Those circumstances include the pressure felt by a young couple who became parents before they had a chance to grow up themselves.
Wayne Hodgin | Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 12:30 am
Baby Aiden: A short, sad story
In the beginning
Tina Marie Richards grew up in Effingham County. She attended Rincon Elementary School, Effingham County Middle School and then Effingham County High School. Interviews with relatives and friends indicate she had a good, normal life.
She was involved in extracurricular activities such as Future Farmers of America.
She was an honor student.
She had a lot of friends.
"She was daddy's little girl," said her father, Steven Richards. "She was fun. She was outgoing. She loved sports. And she especially loved her family."
She met Phillip Wesley Waller at Effingham Middle School.
According to Waller's MySpace page, he and Richards began dating seriously in September 2005, just after Richards began her senior year at Effingham High.
Waller, a year older than Richards, had lived in the area about 10 years. He moved here with his mother and father around 1993 from the Tampa, Fla., area when Waller was about 7 years old.
Waller attended Effingham County schools until he dropped out after his junior year in high school - more than a year before he and Richards began dating seriously.
"He said he wanted to make a living," said his mother, Joyce Schottel. "I begged him not to (drop out)."
Richards, her father said, "stumbled her senior year and missed a credit," so she never graduated with the rest of her friends. She did, however, go on to earn her high school diploma the next year.
When Richards and Waller began dating in 2005, their relationship was like any other teenage romance, Steven Richards said.
"They were together as much as they could be, as most couples are," he said. "They were a typical teenage couple."
After high school
The summer after Tina Richards graduated from high school, in July 2006, she moved to Tennessee with Waller.
He was set to attend Nashville Auto-Diesel College for training in auto body painting and repair. He would live in the dorm there. Richards would stay with Waller's mother, Joyce Schottel, at her home in Knoxville, about three hours away by car.
The week Richards moved in, she discovered she was pregnant.
"She didn't even know," Schottel said. "But that's not that unusual, considering she was less than a month or so along - a few weeks at most. But when we found out, I began taking her to see a doctor."
Schottel said Richards seemed happy to be having a baby.
Waller, she said, also was excited about the prospect of becoming a father.
"I think he was really happy about it, and he knew how much I love grandchildren, so that made him all the more excited," Schottel said. "But there was no sign of anything when she was living here that she wasn't excited about having a baby."
With all the excitement surrounding her pregnancy, Richards longed to be home with her parents and three siblings. In October 2006, she moved home with her father.
"I just think she was very homesick. It was the first time she had been away from home for a long period of time," Schottel said. "She talked to her parents and her sister many times throughout her stay with us in Tennessee.
"With her being pregnant, and all the hormonal changes that you experience during that time, I think she just got to a point where she needed to be around her own family and her own friends."
Back to Effingham
Richards lived with her father until that January, when Waller returned to Georgia to be with Richards. They rented a home on Conifer Road in Springfield.
"He really felt that he should be with Tina," Schottel said. "He didn't want to be away from her. He felt like he should support her and the family that he was about to have."
After Waller returned to Guyton, Schottel said, she rarely heard from her son.
"He would always call on holidays and birthdays," she said. "But when they moved back down there, they didn't have a car. They didn't have a phone - no cell phone, no television."
Waller got a job as a warehouse laborer for Jenkins Plumbing in Hardeeville, S.C. His boss picked him up every morning and dropped him off each night.
"My son was working a lot. He would leave for work at 5 in the morning and sometimes not get home until 6 or 7 at night,'' Schottel said. "He was working hard to provide for his family."
Steven Richards, too, said there was no hint a baby would be unwelcome.
"She seemed to be very excited about having a baby. Both of them did," he said. "Her sister was pregnant about the same time. She loved picking out and looking at maternity clothes and things for the baby. She had plans for the baby's room. There's no way any one of us could have foreseen what was to come."
At 3:59 p.m. on March 26, 2007, Tina Richards gave birth to an 8-pound, 2-ounce baby boy at Candler Hospital. He was 20½-inches long.
His given name was Aiden Wesley Waller.
A new mom
The first few months after Aiden's birth, Tina Richards - then 18 - tried her best to be a good mother.
Phillip Waller, 19, worked hard to provide for his fledging family.
Richards learned fast about the pressures of being a new mother. Aiden was lactose-intolerant and was beginning to develop a reflux problem, which made him especially fussy.
He cried a lot. Family members have said that bothered Richards.
At times, Aiden was inconsolable.
The periods of nonstop crying wore on Richards.
Her mother, Kimberly Kellam, said her daughter had confided that she thought Aiden cried so much because he hated her.
Richards began seeing a doctor, who prescribed a drug called Effexor for her bouts of depression and anxiety.
The first injuries
Kellam, who lives in Ellabell, often picked Aiden up on Fridays to spend the weekends with her. On the afternoon of July 20, Kellam noticed something she had not seen the weekend before.
"Tina had called me at work to tell me that Aiden needed formula. She also said that he had a bug bite on his face," Kellam later told police. "I got to her house about 2:45 p.m., and he was laying in the bed when I saw his face. It didn't look like a bug bite - more like he hit his face."
Kellam said she told Tina, in a joking manner, that she was lying about the bug bite, but the comment was brushed off, and Kellam took Aiden home with her for the weekend.
"I took him home and fed him, and he went to sleep," Kellam told authorities later. "He slept for about an hour. When I picked him up, he threw up, so I took his clothes off to give him a bath, and that's when I saw bruises on both of his arms."
Kellam called for her boyfriend, Stephen Wilson, to come look at the marks. Wilson suggested they call the authorities.
Effingham County deputies advised Kellam to have Aiden examined at the emergency room at Effingham Hospital, and sheriff's officials called Effingham County's office of the Division of Family and Children Services.
"We keep (Aiden) every weekend and had never noticed anything like this before," Kellam said. "Tina had told me before that she sometimes felt helpless around Aiden. She went to her doctor earlier in the month because she was upset all the time.
"She thought Aiden hated her because he cried a lot."
Sheriff's Investigator David Pollett, after arriving at Effingham Hospital to talk to Kellam, said he noticed not only the bruising but that Aiden seemed lethargic and unaware of his surroundings.
"He wouldn't respond to his name or any sounds that were made," Pollett reported. "His eyes were shaky, and it seemed difficult for him to focus on anything. He wouldn't respond to any of the numerous times he was stuck with the needles by the nurses, who were attempting to obtain blood."
Pollett stated that he noticed multiple marks on the top of both of the child's arms.
"The marks appeared to be made by fingernails," he said.
Pollett began to question Richards, who showed up at the emergency room, about Aiden's injuries.
"She claimed that Aiden was fine and in good health when he left her residence," Pollett said.
Asked about the bruises, Richards told Pollett she had put Aiden to bed the day before, and he had awakened upset and crying. When she went to check on him, Pollett said, she noticed a red mark under Aiden's right eye.
"She claimed she called a hot line to find out what it was under his eye, and that the person she spoke with told her it could have been a bug bite, and if it didn't get better in 48 hours to take him to the doctor or emergency room," Pollett's report stated. "Ms. Richards claimed that she had never seen the marks on Aiden's arms until early in the evening when she had changed him in the hospital."
That night, DFACS officials made arrangements for Aiden to stay with Richards' father in Guyton at the request of Richards and Waller.
Two days later, doctors at Backus Children's Hospital examined Aiden while Effingham County sheriff's investigators continued asking Richards for details about Aiden's bruises.
Denial, then admission
On July 24, Richards remained adamant that she had never seen the marks on Aiden's arms. Richards was asked about her mood when caring for Aiden and said she was OK most of the time but occasionally would become stressed or aggravated.
"Richards stated that she had been to a doctor about her moods and that sometime around the first part of July, she received psychotropic medication for her illness," Pollett stated in his report.
"She said that the doctor told her she should begin to see a change after three weeks and a full turnaround around six weeks."
During questioning that afternoon by sheriff's investigator Michelle Buchmeyer, Richards acknowledged she could have picked Aiden up too hard and caused the marks and bruises on his upper arms.
Buchmeyer asked what items were in Aiden's crib, and Richards mentioned stuffed animals and a plastic music box.
"If Aiden could tell me what happened, what would he tell me?" Buchmeyer asked.
Richards began crying.
She admitted, according to sheriff's reports, that she was aggravated, grabbed Aiden by the arms, removed him from his child seat in the living room, took him to the bedroom and tossed him into his crib.
Then she said Aiden's face struck the music box attached to the side of the crib, the report stated.
Richards was arrested and charged with cruelty to children in the first degree - a felony - and with misdemeanor battery.
A hazy summer
Events during the months leading up to Richards' court date at the end of November are murky at best.
Documents obtained under Georgia's Open Records Law and interviews with local officials and family members indicate Richards had allowed her parental rights to Aiden to be temporarily relinquished to her father and his wife while she underwent court-ordered parenting classes.
She was not allowed to be alone with Aiden.
Steven Richards said DFACS officials visited his home once a month to check on Aiden and would telephone at least once a week.
No records or statements have been made available to indicate what kind or how many parenting classes Richards was ordered to take or what those classes entailed.
A transcript of Richards' Nov. 28 sentencing hearing - at which she pleaded guilty under the state's First Offender Act and was placed on five years of probation - indicates she told the court she believed she had been to about three classes.
During the hearing, she was told that under her first-offender status, if she met all the terms and conditions of her probation and paid her $1,000 fine, her record of felony child abuse would be expunged.
Steven Richards said he received a call a little more than a week later, on Dec. 7, from DFACS officials who said his daughter was eligible to have custody of Aiden, provided she and Waller found a new place to live.
On Dec. 24, Steven Richards said, Aiden was back in his mother's care.
Steven Richards and Joyce Schottel said they believe Tina Richards' being alone most of the day with Aiden while Waller was at work may have been too much for her emotional and mental state.
"I think between her depression, and with Phillip being away at work so much and her being alone all day with no car, no telephone, no cable - just her and Aiden, I think that really must've gotten to her," Steven Richards said.
"I am not making any excuses for my daughter, for what she did. But being alone all day with no one really to talk to, to communicate with, that's got to be rough."
Steven Richards said he and his wife as well as Kellam and her boyfriend tried to be there for Tina, Phillip and Aiden.
But, he said, "there's only so much that we could do."
Stephen Wilson, Kellam's boyfriend, told police he and Kellam "didn't care too much about (Aiden's) environment."
Waller, Richards and Aiden lived in a small residence on Conifer Drive with four other people.
"We both have discussed his living conditions and aren't happy with them, but we don't have any say-so," he told police in a written statement. "Maybe somebody will step in and help."
About 2:45 p.m. Jan. 21, a frantic Tina Richards called 911 to report that her child was having trouble breathing.
When first-responders arrived at her home - she and Waller were living in a home on Old Louisville Road in Guyton - Richards told them she had fallen with her child as she was getting into the bathtub.
Medics at the scene told sheriff's deputies, who arrived a few minutes later, that Richards' story wasn't consistent with the child's injuries.
Aiden was airlifted to Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah in critical condition. He was placed on life support, and family members said he had a broken nose, his brain was swollen and bruises and bite marks were apparent all over his body.
Richards was arrested and charged with four counts associated with child abuse.
Reports indicated evidence was found that she had sewn her child's clothes to his crib. String and duct tape were found that were believed to have been used to bind his feet and mouth.
A week later, sheriff's investigators arrested Waller. He was charged with obstruction of a law enforcement investigation, giving false identity to a law enforcement officer, and two counts associated with child abuse.
Waller isn't believed to have played any part in the abuse other than lying for Richards.
Richards and Waller were held initially in Effingham County Jail but were moved to Screven County for their own safety.
On Thursday, Feb. 28, Richards' first-offender status was revoked, and she was sentenced to 21 years in state prison - 20 years for child cruelty and a 12-month consecutive term for battery.
It also was revealed that she is within days of delivering her second child.
Cries for help?
Steven Richards acknowledges his daughter, as a young parent, might not have been emotionally prepared to take on the responsibility of raising a child.
"It's hard being a parent at such young an age. It was hard on my wife," he said. "Both of them seemed like such great parents. They were very attentive. Phillip calls him 'Little Dude.' Like I said, I'm not making any excuses for what happened. But she's my daughter. I love her. I'll always love her. But something, I guess, just snapped."
Joyce Schottel said Tina Richards needed more help than she was being given.
"As mad as I am at Tina for what she did, I believe she was crying out for help in July, and nobody answered her cries," she said. "Tina lived with me for a summer. She's not an evil person."
Steven Richards has visited with his daughter a few times since her arrest.
"I've already told my daughter she's gotten into this mess by herself," he said. "My only hope is to take care of Aiden and his needs. But I've already told her that if I get custody of Aiden, she can't visit him - ever. Aiden needs my protection. I think she understands that.
"I honestly believe Tina needs help. She really is a beautiful person."
Aiden soon will be ready to leave the hospital, and family members say he'll remain a ward of the state and be placed in foster care, where he can receive the medical attention he needs.
Schottel, who has yet to meet her grandson, believes Aiden should be as far away from his past as possible.
"I can't imagine what kind of time he is going to have growing up alongside his past," she said. "I don't want that for him at all. He needs to be far away from that place and grow up somewhere where he can't learn about all this mess that's happened.
"One day he may go asking about his mother and father, but that needs to be a choice he makes on his own - not one that is forced upon him by what he hears about it growing up."
Steven Richards also said he couldn't predetermine his family's destiny.
"I don't know what the future holds for Tina and Phillip," he said. "I don't know how things will play out. I just want Aiden to get better and to have a normal life."
Baby Aiden timeline
Dec. 15, 1987 - Phillip Wesley Waller is born in Port Charlotte, Fla.
Aug. 6, 1988 - Tina Marie Richards is born in Savannah.
1993 - Richards begins attending Rincon Elementary School.
1993 - Waller's mother and father move to Savannah and eventually settle in Guyton, where Waller begins attending Marlow Elementary School.
1999 - Waller begins attending Effingham County Middle School.
2000 - Richards begins attending Effingham County Middle School.
2001 - Waller begins his freshman year at Effingham County High School.
2002 - Richards begins attending Effingham County High School.
2004 - Waller drops out of high school after his junior year.
September 2005 - Richards and Waller begin dating seriously.
May 2006 - Richards graduates from high school.
July 2006 - Richards and Waller move to Tennessee, where Waller will attend Nashville Auto-Diesel College and Richards lives with Waller's mother in Knoxville, Tenn. The first week after moving to Tennessee, Richards discovers she's pregnant.
October 2006 - Richards moves back to Guyton. Waller's mother, Joyce Schottel, said she believes Richards was homesick.
January 2007 - Waller drops out of Nashville Auto-Diesel College and moves to Guyton to begin supporting Richards and his unborn child.
March 26, 2007 - Aiden Wesley Waller is born at Candler Hospital in Savannah.
July 16, 2007 - A report of Aiden's abuse is first documented.
July 20, 2007 - Richards is arrested and charged with one count of cruelty to children and one count of battery.
Nov. 28, 2007 - Richards pleads guilty to her charges and is sentenced to five years probation for the first count and 12 months probation for the second count to run concurrent with the first count, for a total of five years probation. She is ordered to take parenting classes, while giving up custody of her son to her father.
Dec. 7, 2007 - DFACS officials tell Steven Richards his daughter can have custody of Aiden back.
Dec. 24, 2007 - Aiden is returned to Tina Richards, her father says, on order of Effingham County Division of Family and Children's Services.
Jan. 21, 2008 - Richards, again, is arrested for child abuse and neglect. She is charged with aggravated assault, aggravated battery, cruelty to children in the first degree and cruelty to children in the second degree. Aiden is airlifted to Memorial University Medical Center with life-threatening injuries and is placed on life support.
Jan. 28, 2008 - Waller is arrested on charges of cruelty to children in the first degree, cruelty to children in the second degree, obstruction or hindering a law enforcement officer and giving false name or information to a law enforcement officer. Later this week, both Waller and Richards would be moved from Effingham County Jail to Screven County Jail "for their own safety."
Feb. 11, 2008 - Richards' probation revocation hearing is continued in Effingham County Superior Court. No new date was set. Aiden continues his path to recovery. He is taken off life support and is breathing on his own.
Feb. 14, 2008 - Aiden is moved from the pediatric intensive care unit to a regular room in the pediatric center at Memorial.
Feb. 20, 2008 - Family members say doctors at Memorial have told them that Aiden probably could go home the next week.
Feb. 25, 2008 - Richards' probation revocation hearing, rescheduled for that day, again is postponed in Effingham County Superior Court. It was rescheduled for Thursday of this week.
Feb. 28, 2008 - Richards appears in court to answer charges that she violated her probation stemming from her July 21 arrest on two counts associated with child abuse. The terms and conditions of her five-year probation were violated, according to the prosecution, because of her arrest in January. Her first-offender status is revoked, and she is sentenced to 21 years in state prison - 20 years for a child cruelty count and a 12-month consecutive term for a battery charge. It also is revealed that she is within days of delivering her second child.
On the Web
Go to savannahnow.com/news:
Read several of the public documents associated with the Baby Aiden case, including police reports, indictments and voluntary statements from family friends and relatives.
Listen to two 911 calls that Tina Richards and Bulloch County officials made the afternoon Baby Aiden was critically injured.