As child is laid to rest, questions persist

Sun Staff

Thick makeup camouflaged the bruises on his face, and his Ravens cap covered the injuries on his head.

Surrounded in his small white casket by teddy bears and cards from his playmates, Roy Edward Lechner Jr. was laid to rest yesterday, five days shy of his 4th birthday. Afterward, family friends said they had witnessed incidents of abuse and wondered whether more could have been done to save the Dundalk boy.

Absent from the funeral was Roy's mother, Denise Lechner, who has been charged with child abuse in his death last week. Police are also investigating the death of her younger son, Donald, who was 6 months old when he died in November.

After the burial, mourners gathered at a fire hall and reflected on the misery they say they saw Roy endure. Sandra Lake, a friend who said she lived with the Lechner family on and off for about a year in Essex, said she and others called the Baltimore County Department of Social Services repeatedly and notified a social worker who came to the house of their concerns about Denise Lechner.

"She used to kick him, throw him down the steps," Lake said.

Lake said Denise Lechner, 25, often locked Roy in his bedroom for nine and 10 hours at a time, leaving him without food, water or a diaper change while her husband was at work. Lake, along with neighbors Yolanda Cherry and Jessica Watson, said Denise Lechner also used to take Roy outside and leash him to the house with a rope.

Watson, 21, said she once found Roy wandering alone in the streets after 1 a.m. Yesterday, Watson wore a T-shirt imprinted with the child's picture and the question "Why?"

Roy Lechner Sr., 60, and Teresa Harford, 32, his daughter from a previous marriage, confirmed an account by Lake that Denise Lechner was admitted to the psychiatric ward of Franklin Square Hospital Center while she was pregnant with Donald.

In response to the allegations raised after the funeral, Denise Lechner's attorney, Larry Polen, said last night: "Hearing this stuff, it just seems like further indication that the system simply was not working for these children.

"From what I've been able to gather so far, there are a lot of good people trying to do good things, but somehow the system just wasn't working with this situation."

He has said his client is "very troubled."

Preliminary review

Maureen Robinson, a spokeswoman for the county Department of Social Services, said yesterday that, based on a preliminary review of the Lechner case, it appeared that the agency did all that it could to help the family.

"Everything that our social work practices and the law would allow in terms of intervention, we did," she said.

Robinson declined to confirm whether the agency had records of neighbors calling to report signs of abuse or neglect, saying that the state attorney general's office is reviewing the agency's report on its involvement with the family. But, she said, the department keeps records of every call received. In cases where callers identify themselves, Robinson said, the agency follows up with letters.

The department completed a report yesterday that includes details about services it offered the Lechner family, the frequency of its contacts and what interactions social workers had with other agencies about the family, including court petitions and the rationale for those requests, Robinson said.

The report will not be released for public examination until the state Department of Human Resources and the attorney general's office review the documents, Robinson said. She said law enforcement agencies must also review the report before it is made public to ensure that the information will not jeopardize current police investigations or prosecutions.

Baltimore County police said that if the autopsy results determine that Roy's death was a homicide, the charges against Denise Lechner would be upgraded. His brother's death, the cause of which was classified as undetermined, is also under review.

"With that, too, we want to see what happens with the autopsy and further conversations with the mother and a review of the case record at the time," said Bill Toohey, county police spokesman.

A short, hard life

Roy's short life was a hard one from the beginning. By the time he was 5 months old, his mother was facing jail time on criminal charges that she bruised his face. She would serve 10 days of a 30-day sentence, family members said. The boy spent a year in foster care.

During that time, Roy lived with Viola and Kenneth Long, longtime friends of Roy Lechner Sr., in East Sparta, Ohio.

Viola Long said in a recent interview in Ohio that she and her husband applied for custody of Roy. She said they gave up their fight only after being told they would have an uphill battle because they were not family members and after Roy's father promised to take him to Maryland without Denise Lechner.

Beth Schwitzgebel, the Longs' daughter and another of Roy's caregivers, said seeing the injuries the boy had suffered left her with concerns for his safety.

"I remember begging [Roy Lechner Sr.] to let little Roy stay here," she said. "I told him if he let Denise come there, my exact words were that she was going to kill him."

When Roy came back to visit after moving to Maryland late in 2002, he was different, Viola Long said.

"I would reach for him, and he would flinch and dodge," she said, "like somebody was slapping him all the time."

Small comforts

Through many tears, about 50 friends and relatives at the funeral yesterday found two reasons to take comfort.

First, the idea that Roy was joining his beloved baby brother, who he was told had turned into a star. Relatives had fastened pins of airplane wings and a guardian angel to the gray sweater-vest Roy wore over a blue button-down shirt.

Second, that Roy got his wish to ride in a fire truck. At the family's request, the Wise Avenue Volunteer Fire Company transported his body from the Duda-Ruck Funeral Home to Oak Lawn Cemetery and provided six uniformed firefighters to serve as pallbearers.

Roy had been fascinated with firefighting since his house in Essex burned down last summer, relatives said. Investigators blamed the fire on a "child playing with fire," although relatives and neighbors insisted Roy was not to blame.

"He'll never have to suffer ever again," Harford said while sobbing.

A child remembered

Harford and others reminisced during the 20-minute service about the joy Roy took in spraying people with lawn hoses and with helping his classmates pick things up from the floor.

Said Michele Needel, his pre-kindergarten teacher at Battle Grove Elementary School: "He just had a big, big heart that really stood out."

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