Death of a Dependent: A mother behind bars shares her story to prevent other deaths

TaraNova// Photo Provided

It was a case that stunned our area. A 3-year-old, Elkhart girl was dead, a man was charged with her murder and her mother, Dusty James, was charged with neglect.

James has spent the past 14 years re-living the day her child died. She has just scratched the surface of her sentence.

She was 19-years-old when it all happened. At 20, she was given 55 years for what the judge says was her part in the death of her daughter, TaraNova.

Now, she's no longer a teenager-- but a woman who has spent the majority of her life behind bars.

Her story is filled with tragedy and regret but it's one she's hoping could help others.

As a great-grandma to nearly 30 kids, Judith Wolfe's home looks like you may expect. It's covered with photos of her babies.

"I always thought she was a cutie pie,” said Wolfe, reflecting on a photo of TaraNova.

There's snapshots of the places her children have been and their growth, but in between one of those frames you'll see a Jame's photo.

"I can see the change in her over the years,” said Wolfe.

The years she referenced have been spent at a maximum security prison in central Indiana. Rockville Correctional Facility is where Dusty James has spent the majority of her adult life.

In 2004, she was a 19-year-old mom to two kids, 3-year-old TaraNova and her 1-year-old brother.

“I finally got enough nerve to leave my kids' dad and just jumped right into another relationship,” James said.

The man she found, was Chad Strong. James says he was nice to her and from what she saw, nice to her kids, but hindsight is 20/20.

"There was some red flags, now, that I can look back at it,” James said.

She went to work one July morning, leaving Strong with TaraNova and her son.

"I thought, I was like 'Ugh, if I wake them up they're not going to want me to leave and then I’m not going to be able to go to work,'” she said.

Not saying goodbye that summer morning, is one of her many regrets. Later that day, her boss took her aside.

“She says 'Your boyfriend just called. Something happened to your daughter. He's coming to pick you up,'” James recalls.

When Strong arrived, TaraNova was in the back seat.

"She looked like she was sleeping, but she looked like a porcelain...just a porcelain doll... and you could tell something was wrong,” James said.

She says he told her TaraNova hit her head.

"By the time I got almost to the hospital, Chad looked at me and pulled her into his lap and started doing CPR and when Tara's mouth fell open, I knew,” she said.

The hospital confirmed, TaraNova was dead.

“I still didn't know what happened. I kept saying 'What happened?' And he just kept saying 'My mom thinks that we shouldn't be together anymore,' and I’m like 'Why what's going on?' And he just said 'Nothing she hit her head,” said James.

Although, TaraNova didn't hit her head. She died from a blow to her stomach. Strong and James were taken to the police station for questioning.

“She kept hitting the table. 'You tell me what you know. You tell me what he did,'” James said reflecting back on the detectives questioning her.

She says the detectives painted the man she thought she knew as a monster, a monster responsible for killing her baby girl. Police asked James if Strong had ever shown signs of abuse towards her kids.

"I didn't know that that was going on,” James said.

Strong was convicted of Tara's murder. James was convicted of neglect resulting in death.

Child abuse experts say her ignorance isn't uncommon.

"Abusers are very manipulative and crafty and they are able to get people to see what they want the person to see, not what's really going on, and we know that,” said Barbara Vernon with Child and Parent Services.

James wasn't the only one who didn't see the hurt behind the smiles in the photographs.

"I never dreamed that this other stuff must've been going on that I didn't know about,” said Wolfe.

“I still feel like I’m in a dream,” James said.

Though, it's not a dream. It's a nightmare she can't wake up from.

"They were both amazing kids,” she said.

Her son went into the foster care system and was later adopted.

“He's 15. So I missed out on everything, but he's got a mom, he's got a dad and I feel like he deserves better,” James said.

While the photographs of her little girl will eventually start to fade, James says the pain hasn't dulled at all.

"When they say like every day it will get better. Time heals. I don't think so,” James said.

It's that pain that compels her to share her story, to prevent others from walking the same tragic path.

“I do feel like I deserve what I get. I probably will always feel that way. I want to do this. I want to give back what I wasn't able to afford,” James said.

James is serving a 55 year sentence.

She's hoping to get a plea modification after she serves this next year. Right now, the earliest she can be released is 2030.

James admits there were red flags that she missed, signs that could've prevented Tara's death.

You'll hear what those were and how to notice if your child is a victim of abuse Tuesday night at 6 p.m. on WSBT 22.

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