‘Child torture’: Indictment describes horrific abuse of two sons by Delaware couple

Kent County Courthouse. (Delaware Courts)

Kent County Courthouse. (Delaware Courts)

The sheer number of charges is staggering: 646 counts of child abuse against a Delaware couple accused of brutalizing their two young boys.

Choking, punching, and kicking them. Making them eat their feces. Keeping them in soiled diapers and having them clean themselves with filthy water. Making them stand naked for long periods of time. Starving them. Shoving food in their mouths. Locking them in their shared room.

Severe malnutrition led one boy to be hospitalized four times — once purportedly when he was close to death — and his brother two times during an 11-month period that ended in March.

Much of the violence was captured on video cameras the parents installed in their room, court records show.

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“These are the cases that keep us up at night,’’ Delaware Attorney General Kathy Jennings said this week when announcing the indictment.

The indictment unveiled against Mary and Charles Vinson of the tiny Kent County town of Houston did not specify the boys’ ages, but a source familiar with the case said they are elementary-school age, long past the age to wear diapers.

Charles Vinson is the boys’ biological father and Mary Vinson their stepmother, according to the arrest warrant issued in February, when they were first arrested in the case and detained. WHYY News obtained the warrant from court officials Friday after filing a public records request.

Mary Vinson, 45, and Charles Vinson, 36, are both being held at state prisons in lieu of nearly $600,000 cash bond apiece.

The state Division of Family Services has had custody of the children since October 2021, the arrest warrant said.

Child protection workers took the children from the Vinsons after a doctor at Nemours Hospital for Children alerted authorities that he suspected “child torture” of one boy, who had been at “imminent risk of death upon admission” from severe dehydration and spent three days in intensive care before being stabilized.

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Mary Vinson had denied abuse and said she loved the boys as her own during a state police interview in June 2021, the warrant said. Charles Vinson had told police then that the boys were sometimes confined to their rooms because of behavior problems including harming their dogs and inappropriate touching, the warrant said.

But after the doctor spoke with police, Charles Vinson told authorities the boys were often confined for up to seven days as punishment and often without food for 24 hours. He told police  he “had turned a blind eye” to his wife’s abuse, the warrant said.

Detectives who went to their home about 20 miles south of Dover to seize the camera’s recordings found it was missing. Charles Vinson told them he had taken the DVR to a storage facility, where police located it and were able to view what happened inside the bedroom.

‘Just so heartbreaking’ to hear details of the alleged abuse

Details about the alleged crimes are contained in the warrant and a blistering 301-page indictment, both of which identify Mary Vinson as the prime perpetrator of violence against her stepsons. The news release from Jennings’ office even contained a warning that “details of this case could be upsetting/disturbing to many readers.”

Beyond dozens of instances of punching, kicking, jabbing, kneeing, and shaking, often to the face, the indictment alleges Mary Vinson committed these violent acts against one of the boys, sometimes with his brother watching:

  • Forcing him to drink water from a bucket used to clean urine, feces, and dirt.
  • Grabbing his neck and shaking him back and forth, or punching him in the throat.
  • Striking him in the head with a bottle.
  • Hitting his legs and face with a shoe.
  • Striking his face with a belt.
  • Picking him off the floor by his ears.
  • Carrying him by the neck after hitting him.
  • Picking him up by the head after hitting and kicking him.
  • Kicking one boy until his head struck a wall.
  • Pulling his diaper down and repeatedly hitting him with a shoe, then punching him in the face.
  • Picking him up by the neck and off the floor for several seconds.
  • Putting her hands around his neck, slamming him to the floor, and hitting his buttocks about 15 times.
  • Pulling him across the room by his hand and using his own hand to punch his face.
  • Tilting his head onto the top of a dresser, causing his feet to leave the floor.
  • Grabbing his ears and pushing him against furniture, causing his head to bounce off a drawer.
  • Flicking his face about 44 times, then hitting his face.
  • Grabbing his throat, slapping him, and plucking his eye socket.

Charles Vinson often spanked the boys on camera and raised his fist to them, the indictment said, adding that he also witnessed some of his wife’s attacks.

Beyond attempted strangulation, child abuse, endangerment, and conspiracy counts, both parents are also charged with kidnapping, for allegedly restraining the boys “with the purpose of terrorizing” them, the indictment said.

The Vinsons are also accused of providing false information to medical professionals evaluating and treating the boys.

If convicted on all charges, Mary Vinson faces 40 to more than 1,150 years in prison, Jennings said. Her husband would face 16 to more than 270 years in prison.

“It’s a horrific situation,’’ said Kellie Turner, acting director of Prevent Child Abuse Delaware. “I’ve been doing my job for 27 years, and it’s just so heartbreaking to hear those things.”

Kellie Turner of Prevent Child Abuse Delaware calls the allegations ”horrific.” (Courtesy of Turner)

Turner said she has only read about the case, but is gratified that “intervention did occur” and the children were removed from the home. “It’s critical for the future of those children. So hopefully they’ll be provided the support and resources that they need to recover from their experiences.”

Jennings added that “my prayers are with the victims who, thank God, are somewhere safe. We will seek swift and complete justice against the accused; nothing matters more than protecting our kids.”

Josette Manning, secretary of the Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families, said she could not comment. Manning’s department includes the agencies that investigate child abuse and run the foster care program.

Everyone plays a role in keeping children safe

Turner said that cases like the Vinsons should also serve to remind the public that child abuse is preventable and they everyone has a role in keeping kids safe.

One way is by calling the state’s hotline — 1-800-292-9582 — or using the Take Care Delaware online portal to report suspected abuse or neglect.

While doctors, social workers, school employees, health care, and law enforcement professionals are mandated by law to report suspected abuse or neglect, Turner said children are safer when everybody keeps an eye out for signs of children in peril.

“When you are involved with families or seeing something that’s concerning, it’s important that you are calling the hotline,’’ Turner said. “It’s important for people to remember that when you’re calling the hotline, you’re not trying to get somebody in trouble. What you’re doing is asking for help.”

In acute situations, when a child is being harmed or they are perceived to be in life-threatening danger, Turner says people should not hesitate to call 911.

The bottom line, Turner said about the allegations against the Vinsons, is “they are the things that we work really hard to try to prevent from happening.

“You don’t want to hear about any child being hurt, obviously, but some of those allegations are just horrifying and this just helps us understand the importance of really working to prevent abuse, so no child has to have that experience. “

Parents and guardians can also call the Help Me Grow hotline by dialing 211 to get connected to community resources to help manage challenges.

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