Protecting our youngest

Our view: A woman with a troubled past is charged with killing her baby, and authorities are left to reconsider the law that might have prevented such a tragedy

March 18, 2010

The death of 1-month-old Rajahnthon Haynie, whose body was recovered from Druid Hill Park on Sunday, presents yet another incident of child abuse that raises the inevitable question: Might this tragedy have been avoided? In a peculiar twist of fate, a law approved by the General Assembly just last year may make help prevent such horrors in the future - but it needs to be strengthened now.

Lakesha Haynie, the infant boy's 28-year-old mother, has been charged with first-degree murder in his death. According to autopsy results, Rajahnthon died of head fractures and blunt force trauma. His mother is accused of burying him in a shallow grave in the park last month.

But what's particularly troubling about the crime is that Ms. Haynie had a history of child abuse that should have been well-known to authorities. She had four other children taken away by the Department of Social Services over the past eight years; her parental rights were terminated in two cases, while another child is currently in foster care and the fourth was given up by the mother voluntarily to a relative, according to a state official.

Last year, the state legislature approved a law that requires the state to cross check records so that it can learn when mothers whose parental rights have been terminated for incidents of abuse or neglect have given birth to another child.

Once social services is notified, the agency is required to investigate the family and determine whether further intervention is required. But the law only went into effect on Oct. 1 and was not initially interpreted by the Department of Human Resources as retrospective - that is, DHR did not plan to look at the records of parental terminations prior to five months ago.

Fortunately, DHR Secretary Brenda Donald announced yesterday a change of policy - from now on, those records will be checked as well (at least for the four years that are readily available). That means no more grace period for abusers who lost their parental rights prior to last October.

Whether that would have made a difference in the Haynie case appears doubtful at best: According to Secretary Donald, Rajahnthon's birth was not yet registered with the state at the time of his death, so a cross-check of records could never have taken place in time.

Lawmakers could also have helped matters by embracing the law one year earlier, but the matter proved controversial within the State House in 2008, as some had concerns over privacy and other maternal rights. Sadly, those objections now seem inadequate when weighed against an infant's life.

Last year's measure passed with two compromises - shortening the "look back" time to five years and flagging only parents who abused or neglected their children and not all who lost parental rights.

Much is not yet known about the circumstances of Rajahnthon's death. It's far from clear whether social workers could have predicted such violence even if they'd been alerted to Ms. Haynie's troubled history.

But what's important is that every effort be made to identify children in danger of being harmed and take whatever measures are necessary to prevent it.

The economic downturn of the last two years has clearly put more children at risk of abuse. Not only are families more stressed than ever, but cuts in government spending on child welfare programs, combined with the heightened demand for such services, have caused the social safety net to fray.

More than ever, it's important for all of us - from teachers and health professionals to relatives and neighbors - who come in contact with children and their families to report incidents of suspected abuse. Since the "birth match" law went into effect, at least three babies have been identified for closer monitoring. While that's helpful, it's only a small fraction of the children in danger of being harmed.

Lawmakers ought to revisit the issue and consider ways to strengthen this protection. Surely it would be helpful to apply it not only to cases where parental rights were terminated but to all child abuse convictions.

The risk to helpless children like Rajahnthon is too great not to pursue every opportunity to prevent such cruelty before it can take place.

Readers respond
While an infant lies dead and children are thrown away like garbage, the head of the state's social work department determines the law should apply to cases before the new law took effect. This is all we have accomplished?

The children who do survive at the hands of individuals like Ms. Haynie end up somewhere, and while they suffer neglect and abuse, they see that only abusers have rights. More throwaway kids mean more societal problems - drug abuse, crimes and unwanted pregnancies.

Mrs. Baquol

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