SD woman tries to raise awareness of child abuse

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MITCHELL, S.D. (AP) - Mason Naser was a regular 4-year-old boy, except for the bruises all over his body.

He liked to run around, wear cowboy boots every day and wanted to be a bull rider when he grew up. But Naser never had a chance to fulfill that dream.

He died in February 2013 at the hands of his caretaker.

Donika Gonzales was convicted April 11 for first-degree manslaughter and aggravated assault, charges that resulted from Naser’s death. The 23-year-old Gann Valley woman faces up to life in prison for manslaughter and up to 15 years for aggravated assault. She will be sentenced in July.

During the trial, an interview recording was played in which Gonzales admitted to abusing the child because, “He wouldn’t use the potty.”

Gonzales‘ trial concluded earlier in April during National Child Abuse Prevention Month. The observance is held to bring awareness to child abuse, neglect and instances such as the one that led to Naser’s death.

Naser’s aunt, Malissa Walters, who lives in Rapid City, has been working for more than a year to spread awareness of child abuse and prevention through a Facebook page called Justice for Mason.

Mason’s getting his justice,” Walters said through tears after the trial. “I couldn’t be happier.”

According to the Child Welfare League of America, more than 1,400 South Dakota children were victims of abuse or neglect in 2010, the most recent year for which numbers are available for the state.

Of those 1,400 children, 95.8 percent (about 1,340 children) were neglected; 9.3 percent (about 130 children) were physically abused; and 3.9 percent (about 55 children) were sexually abused.

Child abuse in South Dakota has been on the rise, according to Child's Voice, an advocacy group that works with various agencies in South Dakota, such as the Department of Social Services, to evaluate children who are suspected of being abused or neglected.

Connie Schmidt, director of Sioux Falls-based Child's Voice, a division of Sanford Health, said there has been a 36 percent increase in the number of child abuse and neglect cases reported in the past three years.

Walters is doing her part to help bring awareness to the problem. She held the first Child Abuse and Prevention Awareness Walk on April 12 in Chamberlain.

About 140 people attended Walters‘ walk, which raised $753 from raffles and T-shirt sales to sponsor an Easter egg hunt Sunday in Lower Brule at the high school football field. An Easter egg hunt honored the memory of Naser.

“I want to create awareness,” she said in a recent interview with The Daily Republic, only a few days following the verdict of Naser’s trial. “I want people to know child abuse happens everywhere.”

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