Md. child abuse deaths exceed national average

Concentrated in areas of poverty, high violence

May 18, 2004|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The most recent case happened over the weekend, when a teen-age mother and young father were charged with the horrific murders of their twin, 1-month-old daughters. Emonney and Emunnea Broadway were dead by the time the infants arrived at Johns Hopkins Hospital, malnourished and filled with broken bones.

Two months ago, drug addict Monalisa Mackey, 40, was charged with smothering her 18-month-old daughter, who was born addicted to cocaine.

And at a February birthday party in West Baltimore, 12-year-old Nicole Ashley Townes was punched and stomped into a coma, as the adults who were supposed to be caring for her allegedly encouraged the other children and struck blows of their own.

Each incident seems isolated, destined to grab headlines and then quickly fade. But newly released federal statistics suggest the cases are part a tragic pattern in Maryland, where the rate child of abuse deaths is higher than the national average.

For every 100,000 children in Maryland, about 2.4 are killed each year by parents or care givers. Nationally, the rate is 1.98, according to statistics recently released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Across the country, about 900,000 children were victims of abuse in 2002, resulting in almost 1,400 deaths, according to these statistics. More than 80 percent of the perpetrators in those cases were parents.

Thread of desperation

Social workers, pediatricians and lawyers familiar with abuse say the common thread in many of the city's cases is desperation - abject poverty surrounded by crime and violence.

"Clearly poverty is one of those things that increases the risk. But poverty alone doesn't explain it," says Diane DePanfilis, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. "Most poor people care very well for their children."

DePanfilis, author of the Handbook for Child Protection Practice, says high rates of crime and drugs create situations where children are being shuffled among homes.

Maryland is a state of striking extremes. As a whole, it's one of the most affluent in the nation. But poverty and violence are concentrated in a few pockets, most notably Baltimore.

"We are a wealthy state," says Susan Leviton, director of the Children's Law Clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law. "We have greater areas of concentrated poverty. And in some of those areas, you have kids living in a very violent world."

Warren A. Brown, a Baltimore defense lawyer, says he sees child abuse exacerbated by Baltimore's culture:

"Baltimore is that rugged, blue-collar, tough, urban, unsophisticated, criminal town. Socioeconomics is what ties these cases together. Poor folk. There's brutality, misery everywhere around them. That child becomes a means of venting."

Baltimore is similar in that way to other poor, urban centers, such as Washington. Of the 33 child abuse deaths reported in Maryland in 2002, the most recent data available, seven occurred in Baltimore and five in Prince George's County. The rest were spread among the state's other jurisdictions.

Abuse underreported

In the Family Violence Unit of the Baltimore State's Attorney's Office, more than 50 first-degree child abuse cases are prosecuted a year, as well as at least five homicides, says Julie Drake, head of the unit.

And child abuse deaths are underreported by 60 percent, according to a 1999 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Still, each month or two in Baltimore, another horror emerges. For example, Hilda Patterson, 63, is waiting to be sentenced Friday for a child abuse charge in which police say she shoved a rattail comb into her infant great-grandson's throat, then wrapped a shoestring around his neck.

In Maryland, the Department of Human Resources reports that Baltimore had more than twice as many child abuse cases as any other jurisdiction from June 2002 through July 2003.

Social service workers found abuse was indicated in 2,190 cases in the city, compared with 882 in more populous Prince George's County and 680 in Baltimore County.

Baltimore's Health Commissioner, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, says that for many families in the city, smacking a child is tolerable, even encouraged: "There is a culture of violence in a lot of these families. They see slapping or hitting as totally acceptable means of communicating."

The most severe cases of child abuse "represent a very dark side of the human species," says Roger Friedman, a social worker and psychiatrist who consults for the Maryland Department of Human Resources.

Take the case of Ciara Jobes, 15. Police say her guardian, Satrina Roberts, beat Ciara, denied her food and locked her in an unfurnished and unheated room for months, forcing her to use a hole in the wall as a toilet. Ciara's lifeless body was found on Roberts' kitchen floor.

"In the most severe cases, the child is largely dehumanized," Friedman says. "The offender doesn't see the actions as remarkable at all."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.