Friday, April 16, 2010

Prosecutor says "surge in child brutality is worst in 25 years"--but doesn't explain why (Queens, New York)

A veteran prosecutor says that the Borough of Queens (New York) is experiencing the worst surge of brutal child abuse in 25 years, with 8 children badly beaten since the end of February.
But why? In terms of assigning responsibility, all she says is something about "people making bad decisions or hiring the wrong people to watch their children."

That's pretty darn vague and doesn't tell us much. Let's try to get more specific. How are these kids getting hurt? What are the circumstances? And who is doing the hurting?

The answer is given as to how these kids are getting hurt: the majority of these cases are incidents of shaken baby syndrome.

So let's speak plainly. Who commits the majority of shaken baby incidents? The research is clear. It's fathers. (It's mostly fathers in Queens too, based on the media reports.) Here's one Canadian study, though we could cite any number of studies that say the same thing:

Shaken baby syndrome in Canada: Clinical characteristics and outcomes of hospital cases
W James King, Morag Mackay, Angela Sirnick. Canadian Medical Association. Journal. Ottawa: Jan 21, 2003. Vol. 168, Iss. 2; pg. 155, 5 pgs

The perpetrator was identified in 240 cases (66%), with the biological father being the most common (50%), followed by the stepfather/male partner (20%) and then the biological mother (12%). Overall, the perpetrator was male in 72% of the cases; 15% of perpetrators had a previous charge or suspicion for maltreatment of a child in their care.

And what else? The Queens article also makes a vague reference blaming a bad economy, but that doesn't really explain why or how kids are getting injured or killed.

So can we connect the dots?

Let's look at a recent report out of Florida, which found that 200 children were fatally abused in the state in 2008--a 20% increase from 2007. At the same time, Florida's unemployment rate jumped from 4.1% to 6.2% in 2008, accounting for the loss of 339,600 jobs. So as we used to say in high school debate, what's the causal link between the two? Here's what the Florida report found:

Unemployed men between 18-30 who watch the children while the mother is at work are the most common abusers, according to the report. Crying, toilet training and feeding are the most common triggers of physical abuse in young children.

The scholarly research backs up the Florida study too. This what Guteman and Lee have to say about the issue:

"The Role of Fathers in Risk for Physical Child Abuse and Neglect: Possible Pathways and Unanswered Questions" by Neil B. Guteman and Yookyong Lee.

Studies have reported that unemployed fathers are far more likely than employed fathers to physically abuse their children (Jones, 1990; Wolfner & Gelles, 1993). One study, using state-level aggregate data, found that states with higher proportions of nonworking fathers also report higher rates of maltreatment (Paxson & Waldfogel, 1999), although these researchers note that caution should be taken in generalizing such findings to individual-level behaviors. Some researchers have hypothesized that unemployment can lower the male breadwinner’s status within the family and that such loss in status mightprovoke a father to attempt to reassert his authority by engaging in physically abusive and violent behaviors toward the child and/or other family members (e.g., Madge, 1983; Straus, 1974). Studies have reported that fathers who have sustained heavy financial losses tend to become more irritable, tense, and explosive, which in turn increases their tendency to become more punitive toward their children (cf. McLoyd, 1990). It may be that economic losses are perceived as stressful, especially in an uncontrollable way.

But are unemployed dads abusing just from economic stress per se, or because they have been thrust into the role of being primary caretakers, a role that many are just not ready for, either because of nature or nurture? Again, from Guteman and Lee:

In one of the first studies directly examining fathers’ involvement and child neglect risk, Dubowitz et al. (2000) reported that fathers’ greater direct involvement with child care was positively linked with higher child neglect risk but that their involvement in other household domains was linked with lower child neglect risk.

So maybe what we need to do in Queens--and elsewhere--is stop assuming that the unemployed dad or boyfriend can "watch the kids" while mothers go to work. Maybe adequate, subsidized daycare or Grandma might work better. And maybe we need to stop with the radical role reversal experiment and get some of these dads back to work and out of the proverbial nursery.


Jones, L. (1990). Unemployment and child abuse. Families in Society, 71(10), 579-588.

Wolfner, G. D., & Gelles, R. J. (1993). A profile of violence toward children: A national study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 17(2), 197-212.

Paxson, C., & Waldfogel, J. (1999). Parental resources and child abuse and neglect. Child Welfare, 89(2), 239-244.

Madge, N. (1983). Unemployment and its effects on children. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 24(2), 311-319.

Straus, M. A. (1974). Leveling, civility, and violence in the family. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 36(1), 13–29.

McLoyd, V. C. (1990). The impact of economic hardship on Black families and children: Psychological distress, parenting, and socioemotional development. Child Development, 61(2), 311-346.

Dubowitz, H., Black, M. M., Kerr, M. A., Starr, R. H., Jr., & Harrington, D. (2000). Fathers and child neglect. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 154(2), 135-141.

Queens prosecutor says surge in child brutality is worst in 25 years
BY Kathleen Lucadamo and Jonathan Lemire

Friday, April 16th 2010, 4:00 AM

A veteran Queens prosecutor said Thursday that a recent surge in brutal child abuse cases - including four deaths - is the worst she has seen in the borough in 25 years.

At least eight Queens children have been badly beaten since Feb. 25, and authorities are unsure what to do to stop the disturbing upswing.

"We've never seen anything like this," said Marjory Fisher, chief of Special Victims Bureau in the Queens district attorney's office.

"I don't think I've ever seen so many severe child abuse cases in a span of five or six weeks," she said. "People are making bad decisions or hiring the wrong people to watch their children."

Investigators say the majority of the abuse cases are incidents of shaken-baby syndrome - a crime that is nearly impossible to predict and hard to prevent.

"It's not like a Compstat crime," said Fisher, referring to the NYPD crime stats program. "It's not like you can put cops en masse on a particular corner and stop this. These are events happening in people's homes."

The children have not been victims of systematic abuse but were rather the targets of the explosive sudden rage of their guardians.

"Shaken-baby syndrome involves defendants from across the board - people who often otherwise don't have a criminal history," said Leigh Bishop, senior trial lawyer in the Special Victims Bureau.

"These are people who have stable lives, and then they lose it," she said. "They just snap."

Xiah Greene, just 7 months old, became the latest of four fatalities Tuesday when his father punched him in the chest after becoming angry that the baby would not stop screaming.

"Toughen up," yelled Larry Greene, who also told prosecutors that he was jealous that Xiah preferred his mother to him.

Nonprofit groups that work with struggling families in Queens have noticed a spike in child abuse cases across the borough and say the violence is more severe than in the past.

They say a bad economy fueled by an increase in undocumented immigrant families living in tight quarters has created a perfect storm for abuse.

"Those families are under even more stress, and because of their undocumented status, they have fewer resources and places to go when there are problems in the family," said Sandra Hagan, executive director of the Child Center of New York in Jamaica.

A 2004 state law passed after the death of an upstate baby at the hands of a baby-sitter requires hospitals to show a video on the dangers of shaking babies.

Fisher wants it shown in city high schools.

"Education is our best weapon," said Fisher, who delivers presentations to doctors and hospitals on how to be vigilant for signs of abuse.

City statistics indicate that the number of child abuse reports in Queens has remained relatively level over the last seven years, according to the Administration for Children's Services.

Statistics for 2010 were not available. ACS declined to comment on the recent rash of cases.

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