Monday, April 9, 2012

Murder-suicide over false child abuse claims

The family of a couple whose lives tragically ended in a murder-suicide after they were mistakenly accused of child abuse is finally sharing their story.
Almost four years after finding their daughter and son-in-law dead in their own home, Jackie and Paul Cuin spoke to the Denver Post, which obtained medical, social services and police investigations records relevant to their case.
In 2008, Alyssa O'Shell was taken from her parents, Dave and Tiffany, when she was just three months old. Doctors had found 11 broken bones in the infant's legs, prompting suspicions of abuse. Shocked, Dave and Tiffany were helpless as child protective services gave their only baby to a foster mother.
Insisting they were innocent, Alyssa's parents countered the allegations, researching the Internet for other explanations. Maybe she had brittle bone disease, they suggested. But doctors said the little girl's broken bones were "highly suggestive of nonaccidential trauma," according to a hospital report, and would have come from violently twisting her legs.
In the two weeks that followed, Dave and Tiffany, both police officers in Henderson, Colo., met with lawyers and searched for ways to prove their innocence and bring Alyssa back to their family.
Dave, after admitting he'd once playfully picked Alyssa up by her legs to kiss her stomach, was especially scrutinized, and began to think he would be arrested for felony child abuse. As each day passed, he grew more despondent. Tiffany had begun to wonder if divorcing her husband was the only way to keep her baby.
Tiffany's parents, Jackie and Paul Cuin, were also being investigated, as they often watched Alyssa while Dave and Tiffany were at work.
On June 30, 2008, Tiffany and Dave were each to meet with their respective lawyers and a criminal investigator. The last appointment was at 1 p.m. Jackie grew worried when she never heard from her daughter, who had agreed to call throughout the day with updates. At 3 p.m., she called Jackie. No answer.
At 5 p.m., she drove to the couple's home, where she saw both cars in the garage and the dog on the porch. Scared to go inside the house, she instead drove home and returned with her husband, Paul, who agreed to go inside.
"I had already dialed 911 when I heard him scream," Tiffany recalled to the Denver Post.
Inside, Paul found both Tiffany and Dave dead in their bedroom. They hadn't been at the appointments.
The night before, Dave reportedly shot his wife while she slept, then took his own life, sticking two handguns in his mouth and pulling both triggers.
Alyssa's parents were dead, but meanwhile, doctors were running more tests on the little girl. Her foster mother had expressed concerns about her lack of development, just like Tiffany and Dave had once done.
A doctor noted that Alyssa "makes sounds, smiles and laughs," but "does not grasp objects well," and had trouble moving her limbs and controlling her head. She also tended to keep her thumbs in her palms.
All the signs pointed to a genetic illness.
On July 9, Alyssa was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy, which weakens limbs and is associated with broken bones. The Cuins reached out to a specialist at a national spinal muscular atrophy association to confirm that Alyssa's broken bones could be attributed to the disease.
"I have spent three hours reviewing the xrays and the reports," said Dr. Gary Chan in an email to Jackie. "The fractures are consistent with subjects with SMA.
"I would guess some of these fractures may occur at time of delivery, but most occurred after birth from normal handling. It does not surprise me that Alyssa had fractures noted at 3 months of age."
In infants, spinal muscular atrophy is usually fatal, as it was for Alyssa. She died on October 28, 2008, just seven months old.
The Cuins, who were cleared of all abuse allegations and granted custody of Alyssa for the rest of her short life, sued the child protection team but lost.
Still angry, Paul says the social services departments become "overzealous," and should focus on reuniting families when it is appropriate.
"They didn't in this case," he told the Denver Post. "They literally tore the family apart. And you have no recourse. You have to prove you're innocent to get your child back."
Child and family services director Darwin Cox told the newspaper the hospital where Alyssa was referred from is renowned for its child-abuse expertise.
"This was a terrible, terrible tragedy," Cox said. "We did the job we could with the best information we had at the time."
rmurray@nydailynews.com