Deep in the basement of the Los Angeles County coroner's office, two Los Angeles Police Department detectives huddle over a tiny body. It is almost lost on the autopsy gurney. It is a baby boy.
Christopher's mother said he died sleeping in his crib, apparently of sudden infant death syndrome. But the prognosis changes as the coroner cuts the little boy's head to reveal the skull. The flesh is red, bruised. There are two half-inch fractures. Baby Christopher, it seems, may not have died so innocently.
"He was just 1 month old," LAPD detective Carmen Ibarra says quietly.
It is a scene Ibarra--and police around the country--increasingly face as the number of children killed by their parents and caretakers continues a grim and steady climb. In 1991, Los Angeles County saw such homicides increase by a third. Nationwide, the government says four children are killed by their parents or guardians each day--a 54% jump in the last six years to 1,383 fatalities in 1991.
Child advocacy groups note that many children's deaths are not investigated and estimate that more than three times that number are shaken, suffocated or bludgeoned to death each year by the very people meant to protect them. More than half of these children die before their first birthday.
Authorities say the killings are fueled by mounting stresses on dysfunctional families and government's failure to protect its most vulnerable.
A national survey by the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse found that more than 41% of child abuse deaths occur after intervention by child protective service agencies. One 10-month-old Los Angeles boy was beaten to death after 52 contacts with child protective, law enforcement and other agencies, none of which knew about reports made to the others.
Child protective agencies fail to investigate one in five calls reporting abuse. Even in cases where child abuse is substantiated, 37% of children get no services, up from 22% in 1990, a survey by the child abuse advocacy group found.
Ironically, police say the homicide rate is rising as social workers try to spare abused children from foster care and instead quickly reunify them with their parents. Adding to the problem, they say, is a growing trend to put more than half the children placed outside the home with relatives--in a cheaper alternative to foster care. Because child abuse is often learned from a parent, many relatives also turn out to be child abusers.
The Los Angeles Police Department child abuse unit, the nation's first such law enforcement detail, is closest to the battle against child abuse. Dubbed "kiddie cops" or "diaper detectives," the unit was once the only place women could do homicide work.
In a cavernous pink room at Parker Center, 30 detectives, some of whom were themselves abused as children, juggle child abuse and homicide cases. Two tall file cabinets house dozens of "murder books," blue binders giving grisly details of how each child died.
"It's not like you are dealing with stolen cars," said Joan M. Schipper, a supervisor in the unit, explaining why some leave after just one month. "Here, you are dealing with stolen lives."
Today, Detective Raul Galindo fears for Teresa, which is not her real name. It is the eighth time in 1 1/2 years that school officials have called to report her as a suspected abuse victim. In the latest incident, the 12-year-old came to class with black eyes and her face a mass of purple-black bruises.
At the elementary school, the vice principal said the student is fearful of going home after school; she writes the vice principal love letters and tells friends she wishes she would adopt her.
"You'll be fine. I'm here for you," Galindo says as Teresa enters the principal's office. A burly man known to get on his hands and knees to talk to toddlers, Galindo moves close to the girl, holds her hand, and says: "I'll make a deal. I will always tell you the truth. Will you always tell me the truth?" The girl nods.
"My mom hits me all the time," she says, stretching her swollen wrist toward him as tears streak down her cheeks and soak her gray sweat shirt. "I want someone who loves me."
Back at Parker Center, Galindo learns that that is unlikely. Teresa's stepfather, uninterested, says: "What can I do? She isn't my child." The girl, he adds, was born after the girl's mother, Maira, was raped.
"She acts like a dummy. She's stupid," Maira says.
Only when Galindo threatens to put the pregnant mother behind bars does her demeanor change. "I just can't control myself," Maira says. She begins to sob. "I promise you it won't happen again," she vows.
"What if you break this promise and the girl ends up dead?" Galindo asks.
Maira does not respond.
Despite Galindo's pleas, Teresa's social worker at the Department of Children's Services says leaving the girl at home is better than relegating her to foster care and the tenuous chances of being adopted.
Detectives say children die in families struggling with problems ranging from unemployment to substance abuse. Young single mothers with several children--a growing phenomenon--lack the maturity to parent.
"When we have younger children having children, that's a recipe for disaster," said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Ryan H. Rainey. Last year, he said, marked the first time in Los Angeles that more women than men killed their offspring.
More live-in boyfriends and girlfriends and stepparents who have fewer emotional bonds to the children lash out. Mobile families often have no extended family nearby to offer pointers on parenting, child development or to help with baby-sitting when they near the breaking point.
Such stresses are compounded by cramped quarters: One killing occurred in a one-room Los Angeles apartment where 18 people stayed and the children slept stacked on closet shelves, said LAPD Detective Vivienne Gomez.
The volatile mix occasionally creates cases that test any detective's commitment. For Detective James Brown, that test came when a 17-year-old who had hidden her pregnancy from her parents delivered her baby in a locked bathroom. By the time Brown arrived, the teen-ager had taken a razor and begun disposing of the baby in the toilet.
Most often, however, frustrated parents strike out with no intent to kill. Children "cry. They get on your nerves. The diaper stinks. Then, they get diarrhea. You want to get out, but you can't," said Los Angeles County deputy medical examiner Eva T. Heuser.
Most fatalities result from parents shaking their crying babies, causing massive cranial bleeding, or from a fist to the stomach during potty training.
"A lot of parents don't have realistic expectations. They expect a child to stop crying when they say shut up," said Iris Courtney, program specialist at L.A. County's Department of Children's Services.
Typical, said detective Sylvia Garcia, was the recent death of 3-month-old Alma Violeta Segura. When Garcia entered the filthy Los Angeles home, she saw bugs swarming around a pot of chicken gizzards on the portable stove. The furnishings: several brown-tinged mattresses on the floor. The extended family living there all had scabies.
Alma's 15-year-old mother, Maria Hernandez, and her father, 21-year-old Armando Segura, had returned to the house after quarreling at a Christmas Eve party. When Maria went to the bathroom, Alma, lying next to her twin sister, began crying.
"I hit her head against the door," Segura told the police. Two red marks on Alma's fractured right temple matched the door frame. Segura was convicted of felony child endangerment and sentenced to six years in prison.
Frustrated police say the deaths almost always follow a pattern of abuse evident to doctors, neighbors and the government. "People remain reluctant to get involved. They say: 'What goes on in your house is your business,' " said the LAPD's Schipper.
Doctors--particularly private physicians of upper and middle-class patients--often ignore legal mandates to report suspected abuse, fearful of some Los Angeles judges known to make them wait two days in a courtroom to testify, said Nancy Schonfeld, Los Angeles Childrens Hospital emergency room director. Neighbors and the public also balk.
One Los Angeles grocery store clerk recently saw severe bruises on the face and arms of a 17-month-old girl. She took down the mother's name and address from her check but decided not to report the incident, police say. Two weeks later, the clerk read about the little girl's death in a newspaper.
Even when agencies get a report of suspected child abuse, they cannot detect patterns because they do not always share information. A Department of Children's Services worker often does not know that police have been to a home 15 times on domestic violence reports, said Astrid Heger, director of Los Angeles County-USC Hospital's suspected child abuse and neglect team.
"The contact among agencies is incredibly arbitrary," said Michael Durfee, director of the child abuse prevention program at Los Angeles County Health Department.
Information is not forthcoming even when it is most critical. Schipper said that in LAPD investigations, the police cannot get information on reports of abuse from the county's child protective service agency "maybe half" the time, usually because of concerns about confidentiality.
When child welfare agencies substantiate abuse, caseloads of 60 families or more--far exceeding the caseload of 17 families recommended by the Child Welfare League of America--give social workers little chance to respond quickly or to provide adequate counseling.
In 1989, a Los Angeles child services department emergency response worker with 80 cases delayed visiting a 2-year-old reported as a possible abuse victim. Three weeks later, the child was dead.
For their part, Police Department recruits get a two-hour perfunctory course on spotting child abuse. Until six months ago, officers did not routinely check for bruises on children when responding to domestic violence calls, said Durfee, adding: "No one in cop school trains them to say: 'I want to see the baby with (his) clothes off.' "
In one case, the mother of a 6-day-old child explained that the baby's broken legs, broken arm and two broken ribs resulted from a fall off the couch, Schipper said. The officer believed her, no autopsy was done, and the case was not referred to the district attorney for prosecution.
"Some say: 'The house is clean. I like the mom. Let's leave this one alone,' " Detective Gomez said.
But police say the biggest problems in recent years have been caused by social workers rushing to reunite families with little subsequent intervention. The emphasis stems from a 1980 federal law mandating that states make "reasonable efforts" to prevent out-of-home placements in order to receive continued funding and from a recognition that foster care has often been a damaging remedy to child abuse.
Children in foster care are commonly shifted between 10 to 30 families, which adds to the trauma of being separated from parents and siblings. One study in California's Contra Costa County found that a third of children placed in foster care eventually end up homeless, and 35% are arrested while in foster care.
About 3% of children placed in foster care are known to have been abused in those homes, a National Center of Child Abuse survey found.
Last year, Valerie Lacy-Walker of Los Angeles was convicted of murdering her foster child, 3-year-old Robert Brown, by beating him 30 times with an inch-thick paddle.
But police say such abuse appears rare compared to problems they see in some reunited families. One Los Angeles mother--who believed that her unconscious 8-year-old son in the bathtub was dead--had her 5-year-old boy help her cut off the older boy's head, arms and legs, stuff the body parts in a footlocker, and leave them in the Arizona desert. Gomez used the boy's jawbone and dental records to help convict the mother.
In 1985, when the woman was released from prison, she was reunited with the younger boy, now 12. Gomez instantly recognized the boy's name when it appeared on a child abuse report from a local school. The 12-year-old had been beaten raw with a belt. "You don't do what I tell you to do, I'll do what I did to your brother," the boy said his mother told him.
Child welfare agencies' push to place abused children with relatives spawns similar problems. According to police and court records, Theda Rice of Lakewood began beating her 4-year-old grandson, Daniel Hillman, in 1989; she had been given custody of three of her daughter's five children because of the parent's drug problems. Social workers did not know that Rice had repeatedly bludgeoned her own daughter with a baseball bat.
Three months later, Daniel was dead at Pioneer Hospital in Artesia, red and purple bruises covering nearly half his body, his blackened eyes sunken into his head.
Social workers in Los Angeles twice investigated reports of abuse involving Daniel and his two brothers, the last time just two weeks before Daniel's death when neighbors reported that the children were being tied up. The worker--without checking two of the three children for bruises, according to the police--called the allegations unfounded, largely on Rice's denials.
Rice went beyond tying Daniel up. She forced him to balance on an inverted coffee table leg and shot a BB gun at him. She fed him cereal mixed with urine. She put duct tape over his eyes for three days at a time. When the tape was removed, Daniel had puss flowing down his face, police said.
Daniel spent much of the two or three days before his death tied up and crammed in a pretzel position--his arms behind his back and feet over his head--into a cubbyhole 2 feet by 2 feet by 16 inches. Rice had stuffed blankets and pillows around Daniel so he could not move.
The night before Daniel died, the grandmother grabbed him by the ankles and dropped him, head first, on the floor six or seven times. Then, calling herself "Dr. Death," the 160-pound-woman sat on Daniel's chest until the boy defecated and passed out. She rubbed the feces on his mouth and left him in the bathtub unconscious.
When Daniel's cousin, Tanna, saw the little boy crammed in the tiny space the next morning, he gasped his last words: "Me no breathe. Me no breathe." Weakened from the beatings, unable to maneuver the pillows in the cubbyhole to get air, Daniel suffocated.
Rice was convicted in 1991 of first degree torture-murder.
Now, child welfare agencies in 30 states--including California--are launching "family preservation" programs, where many children who previously would have gone into foster care will instead be left at home. Social workers aim to change abusive families by giving them intense, short-term assistance to teach them non-abusive parenting skills. This year, Los Angeles County began diverting $7.6 million of its foster care funds for such programs.
"We don't have to throw these families away. Many of these families are reparable," said Pamela Day, the Child Welfare League's director of family preservation.
Some child advocates and police fear that as more abusive families are kept intact, the death toll may mount.
California spends $1 to prevent out-of-home placements for every $10 spent on foster care. In 1991, the state passed a law allowing counties to shift 10% of their state foster care funds to family preservation programs.
The programs--piloted in California since 1987 and a now top priority in Los Angeles--give social workers small caseloads, usually two to four families at once. The social workers spend five to 20 hours per week over six to 12 weeks with the families.
In addition to parenting skills, the workers try to help the family resolve immediate problems, such as linking them with unemployment benefits, child care and other services.
But some fear the motivation for cash-strapped agencies facing a scarcity of foster care homes may be fiscal: Family preservation costs $3,200 for a family, compared to $8,000 to $30,000 per year per child for out-of-home placement, which often lasts several years.
"If economics drive this, we will end up with more children dead. I'm fearful of family preservation," said Mitchell Mason, a program analyst at the Los Angeles County Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, who also questions whether a short-term program can change a family's habits.
According to Jacquelyn McCroskey, an associate professor of social work at USC, it usually takes at least 18 months of intervention to achieve change. She added that four controlled studies have not shown that family preservation results in any decline in foster care placement.
Police believe that their caseloads will decline when more high schools require parenting classes. Also promising, they said, are efforts by California and 34 other states to start post-birth assistance programs for families at high risk of child abuse.
The efforts are modeled after a Hawaii program that quizzes expectant families on potential problems or stress factors and identifies the 20% most at risk of being abusers. Then a paraprofessional makes weekly home visits for up to five years to instill good parenting skills. One study found that the program prevented abuse in 99% of the families served.
The LAPD's Ibarra said such a program might have helped Christopher, the baby lying in the coroner's autopsy room. For now, with the infant's 15-year-old mother unwilling to talk, Ibarra awaits microscopic autopsy findings to try to shed more light on what ended Christopher's short life.
A Growing Tragedy
The number of child abuse homicides has grown in recent years as the recession has placed more stress on already dysfunctional families. More than half of the victims are under the age of 1, a time when children are especially vulnerable to blows or shaking because they are underdeveloped and least able to verbalize their need for help.
The estimated number of child abuse victims nationwide continues to increase; the reported number of child abuse fatalities topped 1,300 in 1991. Estimated Child Abuse Victims: 1991: 2,694,000 1990: 2,537,000 1989: 2,407,000 1988: 2,243,000 1987: 2,157,000 1986: 2,086,000 1985: 1,919,000
Reported Child Abuse Fatalities: 1991: 1,383 1990: 1,253 1989: 1,230 1988: 1,181 1987: 1,147 1986: 1,079 1985: 878
City of Los Angeles: An Ominous Increase
The number of investigations and arrests has skyrocketed in recent years.
Child Abuse Adult Arrests Child Abuse Year Investigations For Child Abuse Homicides 1974 823 269 13 1975 1,121 309 19 1976 1,345 377 12 1977 1,504 300 10 1978 1,733 274 10 1979 2,087 317 9 1980 2,269 278 8 1981 2,829 250 9 1982 2,837 251 30 1983 2,978 264 17 1984 3,346 298 18 1985 3,855 299 11 1986 4,788 355 16 1987 4,257 344 7 1988 4,921 336 18 1989 4,043 338 11 1990 5,135 425 13 1991 5,879 515 27
Los Angeles County: How and When Children Die
In 1991, the causes of death in child abuse homicides included: Head trauma: 37.7% Trauma to torso/abdomen: 11.5% Multiple traumatic injuries: 11.5% Drowning: 8.2% Gunshot wounds: 8.2% Strangulation: 6.6% Unattended/neglected newborn: 4.9% Stabbing: 4.9% Drug ingestion: 3.3% Other: 4.8%
More child abuse homicides occur with children under 1 than at any other age. Here are the figures for 1991. Under 1 year: Male: 19 Female: 15 Total: 34
1 year: Male: 6 Female: 4 Total: 10
2 years: Male: 1 Female: 2 Total: 3
3 years: Male: 2 Female: 2 Total: 4
4 years: Male: 3 Female: 1 Total: 4
5 years or older: Male: 4 Female: 3 Total: 7
Source: National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse; LAPD, child Abuse Unit, L.A. County Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect