The faces of child abuse
Reese Coleman lived just 4 months before he was shaken to death by his father in Mandan, N.D., in February 2006. Demond Reed made it to 4 years old before he was beaten to death by a relative in Minneapolis in 2008, punished for soiling his pants...
Reese Coleman lived just 4 months before he was shaken to death by his father in Mandan, N.D., in February 2006.
Demond Reed made it to 4 years old before he was beaten to death by a relative in Minneapolis in 2008, punished for soiling his pants.
The boys' names and cherubic faces will flash around the country today, symbols of the nation's persistent losses due to child abuse and neglect.
From 2001 through 2007, 10,440 children in the U.S. are known to have died from abuse and neglect, according to a national report to be released today in Washington, D.C., by Every Child Matters, a nonprofit child advocacy organization.
Reese and Demond and 49 other lost innocents, one from each state and the District of Columbia, are featured in the study report as singular examples of a persistent national tragedy.
The 1,760 children documented to have died from abuse or neglect in 2007 alone represent a 35 percent increase over 2001, according to the study, based on state-by-state information gathered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Also, other studies cited by Every Child Matters fault inconsistent record-keeping and varying definitions of abuse between the states for "significant undercounting of maltreatment deaths," suggesting the numbers could be 50 percent higher.
Across the nation, according to the report, children died because warning signs were ignored and because funding for child protection services has lagged.
"About half of all children who die from abuse and neglect were previously brought to the attention of authorities, either by another family member, a teacher, physician, neighbor or someone else who cared about their safety and well-being," said Teresa Huizar, executive director of the National Children's Alliance, one of several organizations joining in today's rally at the Capitol.
"But case workers are routinely stretched too thin," Huizar said, "and funding levels (for both staffing and training) are too low. The result is often too little action that is taken too late, and kids die as a result."
N.D. child death number disputed
Marlys Baker, administrator of child protection services for North Dakota, said she agreed with "the overall message of the report, which is the prevention of child deaths." But after a quick review Tuesday of the study findings, she challenged a key statistic attributed to the state.
Instead of 29 child deaths in North Dakota from 2001 to 2007 due to abuse or neglect, "I count eight for those years," she said.
"We do have more deaths than we did," she said. "For years, the number was zero. Now, it's one or two a year. Those receive a great deal of attention, but we do not have great numbers of children dying in our state from abuse or neglect."
North Dakota enjoys advantages that provide greater protection to children, Baker said.
"Certainly, our economy has protected us," she said. "Our families are not in the levels of stress as in other areas. Also, our citizens are very good at reporting abuse.
"When a child dies in North Dakota, there's a ripple that goes out all over the state. We're still very shocked by the abuse or neglect of a child."
Baker said that she would investigate the numbers disparity, but she emphasized that greater awareness of child abuse and neglect and an improved response to the problem are legitimate goals.
"We do offer a number of protective services through the department, and we've established caseload standards that are in compliance with the Child Welfare League of America," she said. "We've provided training through UND for many years, and it's good training.
"We sponsor parenting education, for families that are stressed or who just want to learn more about parenting," Baker added. That includes a parent resource center in Grand Forks partly funded by the state and administered through the schools.
A link to poverty
Fatal child abuse may occur over time or as the result of a single incident, according to the study. A death due to neglect "results not from anything the caregiver does but from a caregiver's failure to act."
The fatal neglect may be a one-time occurrence, such as failing to supervise a baby in a bathtub, or it may be chronic, such as an extended malnourishment.
In calling for increased funding -- and a greater federal responsibility for child abuse and neglect -- the study's authors also maintain that many states' confidentiality laws, originally intended to shield abuse victims, "have become a hindrance to a better public understanding" of the problem by denying journalists and lawmakers access to information.
The study authors also link abuse and poverty.
More than 14 million American children -- one in five -- live in poverty, they write. "Most fatality victims (of abuse or neglect) are very young and very poor. In 2007, 75 percent were 4 or younger, and almost half were under age 1."
In 70 percent of fatalities, the abuser was a parent, often a poor, unschooled young adult who suffered from depression and had experienced violence.
Joshua Coleman was 26 when he was convicted of manslaughter and child abuse in the death of his 4-month-old son, Reese.
Coleman had called 911 early the morning of Feb. 16, 2006, and said his son was not breathing. Reese was taken to a Bismarck hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
At his trial nine months later, Coleman testified that his son had suffered health problems since birth, the Bismarck Tribune reported. Coleman said he often tossed Reese in the air to calm him, but as he tossed the boy on this day, Reese "just slipped through my hands" and struck his head on a coffee table.
Under questioning, Coleman admitted he later pushed Reese's face into a mattress "to muffle the crying." But he insisted that Reese's death was an accident.
A jury convicted him on the manslaughter charge Nov. 8, 2006. Coleman was sentenced two months later to serve seven years in prison.
Carla Poole got 40 years in prison for the beating death of Demond Reed.
Poole, 37, was a cousin of Demond's father, a single mother, and she was to care for him while the father was in jail.
Testimony at her 2008 trial in Minneapolis showed that she had ordered two of her own children to hold Demond down while she punished him for soiling his pants, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported. She said she spanked him, but doctors testified that Demond had fractured ribs, bruises on his head and puncture wounds on his back and stomach.
Demond suffered a seizure after the beating, vomited and stopped breathing, one of Poole's children later told police. Poole, deciding against calling 911 because she was afraid, left the boy's body on a bed for two days, then placed it in a garbage bag, put that inside a canvas bag, and stuffed it in a closet, where police found it.
"There really is no justification for a 4-year-old child to be subjected to such a vicious beating," Judge Margaret Daly said before handing down the 40-year sentence. "It is just impossible to explain the extensive beating that was done here."
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org .