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Reports of Suspected Child Abuse Rise Amid Publicity

November 10, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ Reports of suspected child abuse to a state hotline have increased following the highly publicized case of a 6-year-old girl who allegedly was beaten to death by her adoptive parents, officials said Monday.

The state Department of Social Services has kept operators on overtime since Friday to handle the calls, said spokesman Terry McGrath. He had no figures, but said, ″There’s definitely a higher number of calls coming in.″

Meanwhile, a source close to the case said lawyer Joel B. Steinberg was taken questioned by state police about bruises on the face of 6-year-old Elizabeth Steinberg.

A toll collector on the Gov. Thomas E. Dewey Thruway at Woodbury noticed the girl’s bruised face Oct. 24 when her father stopped to pay a toll, according to the source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The toll taker jotted down Steinberg’s license plate number and called the state police. Steinberg was stopped a short time later and taken to the Tarrytown state police barracks where he was questioned about what appeared to be bruises and marks on the child, the source said.

After hearing his explanation, they let him go, said the source. Steinberg and the girl were the only occupants in the car, the source said, adding that the lawyer was returning from Albany where he had been representing a defendant in a narcotics case.

Also Monday, legal authorities struggled to resolve custody issues delaying funeral arrangements for Elizabeth. The child was reported to have been adopted by Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum, who were unmarried but lived together for 17 years. But investigators said no documents have been provided to back the claim.

Paramedics called to the couple’s fetid Greenwich Village apartment last week found Elizabeth bruised and comatose and a boy, Mitchell, 16 months, tethered to a chair, officials said.

The boy was placed in a foster home. The girl died Thursday in a hospital, and officials said an autopsy indicated previous abuse.

Steinberg, 46, was indicted on charges of second-degree murder and has pleaded innocent. Ms. Nussbaum, 45, herself hospitalized for an apparent beating, was arrested on murder charges but has asked to testify before the grand jury before it votes on indicting her.

Elizabeth’s death raised concern over the adequacy of efforts to shield children from mistreatment.

″There are more people calling in during the last few days asking whether or not they should report something that they may have been thinking about for some time,″ McGrath said. ″This case is providing incentive for people who are uncertain whether to report their suspicions to actually take that action.″

Reports called in to the hotline are referred to local social agencies for investigation. The line took about 95,000 calls in 1986 and is expected to receive 100,000 this year, McGrath said. About 40 percent of the reports prove founded.

In Elizabeth’s case, the city welfare agency said it had done its job as well as possible: A social worker visited the apartment when abuse was reported three years ago and found nothing to substantiate the charge.

The girl’s first-grade teacher, Sylvia Haron, noticed bruises on the child’s face three weeks ago and contacted Steinberg, but was satisfied with his explanation, said Goria Lesser, a Board of Education spokeswoman.

″If a teacher feels it is a case of abuse, she immediately reports it to the principal, who then reports it to the state office of child abuse,″ Lesser said. ″In this case the teacher was satisfied by the parent’s explanation.″

Parents of pupils at the school formed an organization during the weekend to examine responses to the case.

″The purpose of the group is primarily one of a watchdog, to see what deficiencies if any there may be in the system,″ said Seth Friedland, lawyer for the parents.

The group calls itself Let Involvement Stop Abuse, or Lisa, in tribute to the girl, who was known as Lisa. Friedland said it may lobby for new laws on child abuse if current ones are found to be lacking.

The city welfare agency has received as many as 30 offers of assistance with the girl’s burial, including money, funeral services and gravesites. ″There have been offers of really just about everything,″ said agency spokeswoman Suzanne Trazoff. ″Some of it’s been very touching.″

Authorities located Elizabeth’s natural mother, who apparently declined to bury the child, they said. The role therefore is likely to fall to the Office of Public Administrator, a branch of surrogate’s court that handles deaths when there is no next of kin.

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