Man accused of child abuse now charged with murder after adopted newborn son dies

GASTONIA, N.C. — EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that an organization named Adoption Advice and Guidance served as the adoption agency in this case. That is incorrect, and we apologize for the error.

A professor has been arrested and charged with first-degree murder and felony child abuse for allegedly abusing a baby boy he adopted just weeks ago, leaving the newborn with a fractured skull, broken rib, and other injuries.

Gaston County Bureau Reporter Ken Lemon was in court Thursday afternoon, where Van Erick Custodio, 42, faced a judge on the upgraded charge. The charges against Custodio were upgraded after the baby died from the injuries he sustained from the alleged abuse, according to investigators. He was given no bond.

Lemon also learned the biological mother who gave up her newborn son, believing he would have a better life with another family, arrived from out of state Thursday. She was able to be with her son just before he died.

Channel 9 obtained warrants against Custodio, a now-suspended Belmont Abbey College professor, that say he admitted to physically abusing the baby boy “multiple” times. The baby was just six weeks old.

On Wednesday, Lemon discovered Custodio and his wife, who already adopted a girl, held fundraising efforts to pay for the adoption. They were even part of a video for it.

“We just felt like God put that desire in our hearts,” they said in the video. “We’ve always wanted to have a family. At the end of the day, it’s a calling, right, it’s also a scriptural thing, right?”

The organization Both Hands helped the couple raise money for the adoption.

“Our team is incredibly devastated about this news,” the agency said in a statement. “We find these actions atrocious and pray for healing for this child. We strive for all children to be placed in safe and loving homes, so our hearts are broken.”

The child was six weeks old but had already been through trauma. Custodio is in the Gaston County Jail and, according to arrest warrants, admitted to causing serious harm to the adopted newborn.

(VIDEO: 11 p.m. update -- Adoptive father arrested, accused of physically abusing 6-week-old, warrants say)

On Wednesday, investigators were at his Gastonia home, a place police were first called to on April 1 for a child in cardiac arrest.

Arrest warrants reveal the child had a “skull fracture, broken rib, and multiple fractures in each leg.” Another warrant says friends of Custodio went to police saying he had told them, “...he threw the child on the sofa and also squeezed the child, hearing a pop in the rib area” and while changing the baby’s diaper, “...he jerked the legs of the child back and felt a pop in the child’s legs.”

Two days later, police charged Custodio with felony child abuse with serious bodily injury -- but he wasn’t around.

Three days after those charges were filed, York County deputies swarmed a Lake Wylie home. They had gotten information from the State Law Enforcement Division that Custodio was hiding out there. Custodio was arrested and Wednesday afternoon, he was brought back to Gastonia.

The man who pled publicly for money to adopt a child is behind bars, charged with horrible abuse of that child, who died in a hospital Thursday.

Custodio’s personal website says he once volunteered for a family ministry.

His wife was also part of that fundraising effort and she adopted the child with him. The warrant says she told him to leave the house when the abuse came to light.

Custodio faced a judge Thursday, but the investigation is still active.

UNC Charlotte said Custodio was working as an adjunct professor there but is now on administrative leave.

UNC Charlotte statement:

“UNC Charlotte hired Van Erick Custodio on a limited, temporary contract to teach one class this semester in an adjunct capacity. He has been placed on administrative leave, and another faculty member will cover this class for the remainder of the semester.”

Adoption process Custodios would have had to complete

Genie Miller Gillespie, the president of the Academy of Adoption and Assisted Reproduction Attorneys, spoke to Lemon from Chicago Thursday.

She said that, like any family, the Custodios would have had to complete a vetting process before bringing a child into their home.

“A thorough home study process, which usually requires references, criminal background checks, state, federal, and child abuse registry,” said Gillespie.

The couple had already gone through that process with their older child.

Gillespie said the process can take six months and is helpful, but not foolproof.

“It’s impossible to know. I truly wish I had a crystal ball,” she said.

Heather Kauffman, the program director of Lighthouse -- the Gaston County agency that helps abused children -- said the case is frustrating, but not uncommon.

“I don’t know if there’s really ever that situation that truly surprises you,” said Kauffman.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. If you know of a child who is being neglected or abused, please call police. If you just have a bad feeling about something, or are concerned about a child’s well-being, there is help. 1-800-CHILDREN will connect you to resources in North Carolina, and 1-800-4-A-CHILD is the national child abuse hotline.

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