Advertisement
Share

Child Abuse Deaths Increase for 2nd Year

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Teddy, 17 months old, was intentionally burned, beaten about the head, spleen and kidney, and shaken so hard he went into a coma before he died.

Samuel, age 13 months, was covered with human bite marks and had a split liver, a swollen brain, a bruised skull and blood in his stomach before he lost consciousness and died.

Jonathan was 5 months old when he died from blunt head trauma. An autopsy showed that he had earlier suffered brain hemorrhages, skull fractures, a ruptured bladder, bruised lungs and groin injuries during his brief and painful life.

Teddy, Samuel, Jonathan and 50 other Los Angeles County children were abused to death in 1996, victims of what health and law enforcement officials say is an unsettling upswing in violence against children by adults entrusted with their care, according to a report to be released today.

Advertisement

More children, in fact, were killed by their parents, family members or caretakers in 1996 than in the previous year, marking the second consecutive annual increase in child homicides after several years of declines, say the county’s Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect and its Child Death Review Team. The council is made up of dozens of public and private health care, child welfare and law enforcement officials and is chaired by Sheriff Sherman Block.

Serious, abuse-related injuries to children are on the rise, the report said.

“It is of great concern to us,” said Deanne Tilton Durfee, the group’s executive director. “Violent crime in the streets has declined in the past few years. But violence and homicides of children by their own parents or caretakers have not.”

The 53 children killed by parents, relatives or legal guardians in 1996--the latest year for which detailed statistics are available--marks an 8.1% increase over 1995.

“That’s more than one child a week in this county who is killed by a parent or caretaker,” Durfee said.

The children died of head trauma, gunshot wounds, beatings to the abdomen and chest, shaken baby syndrome, suffocation and strangulation, drowning, fire, poisoning, stabbing and starvation. Of the 53 victims, only 13 were known to county child social workers as potential victims of child abuse, Durfee said.

“When you analyze child homicides, you find that only about 25% of them ever were reported to the county’s Department of Child Protective Services,” Durfee said. “This means that these children only can be protected if there is demonstrable concern by friends, families and neighbors, who may be the only ones aware of their jeopardy. Almost all the children killed by their caretakers are preschoolers and therefore invisible outside the home.

“The blame for this tragedy does not attach to a single public agency and the responsibility for solving it extends to the community as a whole,” Durfee said. “We can’t recruit enough foster parents, hire enough police officers or build enough prison cells to solve this problem. This is a shared responsibility and individuals must ask themselves, ‘If I don’t do something for a child I believe is in danger, who will?’ ”

Advertisement

In fact, the average age of the male homicide victims was less than 2 years. More than twice as many girls as boys were killed, and they averaged 4.8 years. Just over half of the victims were Latino, 26% were white, 21% were black and 2% were Asian.

In 1996, there were 197,784 “emergency response referrals” to county law enforcement and child social workers, up from 185,550 the previous year and 169,638 the year before that.

Of those, at least half were found to involve serious child abuse, Durfee said.

“These cases point clearly to the impact a confluence of violent and deviant adult behavior is having on the welfare of children,” Durfee said.

Advertisement

“For example, most killings of children by their caretakers involve substance abuse and/or domestic violence. That abuse of the elderly, disabled and other dependent adults in the home derives from similar causes. It is impossible for a child to live in a home where they daily witness abuse, degradation or neglect of a parent, sibling, grandmother or other relative or significant adult without being emotionally affected on a profound level,” Durfee said. “These children are often injured or killed by abusive adults in their home, even if they are not the abuser’s intended target.”

There also was good news in the more than 300-page report. Accidental deaths by drowning dropped from 31 to 18 after passage a state law requiring owners to fence their pools.

But the report also noted other potentially alarming trends. Among them:

* There has been a “significant” increase in the number of developmentally disabled children who were abused, particularly among 9- to 11-year-olds. In 1996, there were 179 such cases, up from 113 the year before and 86 the year before that. Sexual abuse of the developmentally disabled increased too--from 30 cases in 1995 to 48 in 1996.

Advertisement

* Before October 1996, there were no reported abductions of children from county-supervised foster homes or other “kinship” placement. But by October 1997, more than 100 children supervised by the county’s Department of Children and Family Services were abducted from placement facilities where they were living, all but 1% of them by parents previously found legally unfit to care for the children.

And while Durfee said the reason for the increase was that no one kept statistics before 1996, she said that anecdotal evidence indicates such abductions are increasing.

*

In 20% of the abductions, the children allegedly were abused by the mother or father, who took them from their guardians.

Advertisement

Block said the increases in deaths and injuries from child abuse are of great concern.

But the sheriff also attributed some of the increase to more aggressive reporting and increased awareness of child abuse. What’s more, Block said, many of the deaths would have gone unnoticed had the Child Death Review Team not gone in and independently investigated cases rejected by the county coroner and other oversight agencies as being accidental or even natural.

“That’s why the death review team is so important,” Block said. “If not for the team, literally a lot of people would get away with murder.”

Block and Durfee said they did not have statistics on how many of the deaths had not been considered homicides before the review team looked into them.

Advertisement

But the sheriff said the council plans to step up its efforts to encourage even more aggressive reporting because so much child abuse remains hidden behind household walls.

“We are still not getting all of the cases reported,” Block said. “Even when a parent becomes aware of sexual abuse, if it is by a family member or a close friend, then they just keep it to themselves.”

In her foreword to the report, Durfee agrees, saying that she fears that a lot of child abuse goes unnoticed and unreported.

“The children who are most vulnerable to serious and fatal child abuse and neglect are those least visible to our communities and to our educational and protective service systems,” she writes. “A socially isolated parent may be the only adult to witness the short and tragic life of a young preschool-age victim.”

Advertisement

As it does every year, the council included a long list of recommendations in its report.

They include better cooperation and cross-reporting among law enforcement and social agencies that investigate abuse; more concerted efforts to identify abuse while children are in preschool; better training of health professionals to notice signs of abuse so that they can be reported, and better case management of child abuse cases by the appropriate child welfare agencies.

“This report is unique in the nation,” Durfee said. “It is the most comprehensive multidisciplinary analysis of child neglect and abuse, including fatalities, in the nation. It is a reference for understanding how multiple agencies and public and private community services can and must work together to protect our children.”


Advertisement