In Part 2 of "Breaking Point," Geoff Redick sits down with a local family that saw violent abuse firsthand — and suffered the worst possible consequence.
HUDSON FALLS, N.Y. -- When you watch five-year-old Jesse Smith's family laugh and throw the football around their backyard, it is the picture of happiness — almost.
What you cannot see is that this family, including Jesse's mother, his sister, an aunt and two cousins, is incomplete. That's because Jesse Smith is not there.
"We live with it every day," said Tricia Genier, Jesse's aunt and one-time guardian. "It doesn't ever get any easier."
Jesse James Smith was born on Halloween in 2010. Upon seeing him in the delivery room, his aunt Tricia nicknamed the boy "Mr. Magoo," after the grumpy cartoon character with a bald head and snub nose. Jesse, she says, just had that look.
"The name stuck with him," recalled Genier. "For his whole 15 months, that's who he was."
Jesse's mother Lisa Younes has trouble communicating thoughts about her son, but not memories.
"Jesse was happy. He was always smiling," she said. "He was a really good baby -- he'd wake up happy every morning and run around the house all day long."
Jesse's father was a different story. Gary Waite, who was 28 when Jesse was born, initially had no custody of the child and was not around to parent him, according to Younes. Once a paternity test established Waite's fatherhood, he was saddled with joint custody, and took Jesse home for half of each calendar week.
Younes and Genier said there were never any signs of abuse, though sometimes Waite would reach out for parenting help from another ex-girlfriend, or even from Younes' brother.
"And then," said Younes, "it just happened out of the blue."
In February 2013, Jesse was little more than 15 months old. On the thirteenth day of the month, he was staying with Gary Waite when, at some point, Jesse suffered severe head trauma. He was eventually rushed to Glens Falls Hospital that evening, but the injuries were so severe that doctors had Jesse airlifted to Albany Medical Center's trauma unit.
Lisa knew none of this when she got a knock on her door, beckoning her to Glens Falls Hospital. She called Tricia and said that all she knew was her son "had fallen off of a chair." By the time the pair arrived at the hospital, Jesse was already airborne to Albany. Before they left Glens Falls, though, Lisa learned that Gary Waite was in police custody and being questioned.
What she did not know at that point, was that Gary Waite would never be a free man again. But that was neither hers, nor Tricia Genier's concern by the time they arrived in Albany.
"We thought we could just walk into the hospital and see him when we got there," says Tricia. "But that wasn't the case. He was in brain surgery."
Swelling and bleeding on Jesse's brain had rapidly worsened. Surgeons eventually decided to open the toddler's skull to relieve pressure, and removed some brain tissue to stem the spreading damage.
By the time his mother and aunt saw him, Jesse Smith no longer looked like Mr. Magoo. Tricia Genier even told a nurse that they were in the wrong patient room.
"She said, 'No, I'm sorry, that is your nephew,'" recalled Genier. "Jesse had changed. He was bruised, and the swelling -- his body looked like it had increased 20 pounds."
After a series of tests showed no sign of brain activity, Jesse James Smith was disconnected from life support and pronounced dead on February 15, 2012. Not long after, Gary Waite was charged with murder.
"There is an event that causes rage," says Warren County district attorney Kate Hogan. "And that rage causes force to be inflicted, which often causes catastrophic injury."
Speaking in general terms about serious child abuse cases, Hogan explains that the patterns leading to abuse are often the same. It is common, she says, that a defendant's violence toward a child reflects frustration. The injury patterns may even show the defendant exhibited some sort of "restraint" during the abuse, perhaps causing a more superficial injury than permanent damage. It is no excuse, says Hogan, but that "restraint" may shorten the defendant's prison sentence or probation.
But even before the physical abuse occurs, Hogan says a familiar set of circumstances often point to potential violence.
"The common theme is that a parent isn't capable of fulfilling that role effectively -- whether that's due to substance abuse, an undiagnosed mental illness, or whether you weren't raised in a household where you had a proper role model,' she said. "All of those are factors in cases like this."
Another factor is poverty, something the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services calls a "risk factor." In the most recent data available, nearly a quarter of children involved in abuse investigations were found living in homes with "financial problems." In those same abuse cases, more than half of the children's caretakers were on some form of government assistance.
"A lot of these parents are in 'the system,'" said Colleen Kelley-Lyon. She is president of the Glens Falls-based, grassroots child advocacy group Hands Across New York. The Facebook-driven organization fights child abuse and neglect through public rallies and marches -- but also by offering help to impoverished parents.
"There is a breaking point for everybody, but I think a lot of it is financial," said Kelley-Lyon.
She shares stories of parents with multiple children, forced into bare-bones government-funded motel rooms as a last resort.
"They're trying to make ends meet on a microwave," said Kelley-Lyon. "Maybe they have a part-time job, but what if they can't afford the gas money to get there?"
It is a cycle that pushes parents to violence, when the stress becomes too much. Kelley-Lyon also blames a Child Protective Services system that she says is overburdened, over-regulated and under-funded, which leaves gaps where young parents need help.
Still, she holds no love for parents who harm their children, Gary Waite included.
"Do I think (Waite) was a born child killer? No," she said. "I think it was, 'This kid is aggravating me, I'm going to set this kid aside, and he hits his head and he dies. But he [Waite] belongs right where he is."
Gary Waite, now 32, is serving a sentence of 25 years to life in Auburn Correctional Facility. He was convicted of murdering Jesse Smith in a November 2013 trial.
Waite has since appealed the conviction. He declined an interview for this series, but his mother Terri Waite released a short statement, saying: "I believe in my son is innocent. There is so much that people are unaware of."
The surviving family of Waite's slain child is left wishing that Waite, or someone close to him, had reached out for more help.
"I don’t believe there’s one excuse for injuring a child, or mentally hurting a child," said Tricia Genier. "There is no excuse. There’s always a way."
"People need to make that phone call," she continued. "Whether it’s the police, a social worker, the child abuse hotline -- call someone. There is some who's going to help that child."
"If you don't make that call," Genier said,"no one is going to help."