Baby's 1st year most dangerous; 61% of infant murders come at hands of overwhelmed parents

Relates to:
Date: 2004-04-05

Baby's 1st year most dangerous

61% of infant murders come at hands of overwhelmed parents
Author: Paul Gustafson

The first year in a child's life often is a time of wonder and delight for infants and their parents.

But it also can be a time of unspeakable tragedy and violence, crime statistics show.

In the United States, children are more likely to become homicide victims in their first year of life than at any other time until they reach about 15 years of age, according to U.S. Department of Justice studies.

And when infants are murdered, 61 percent of the time it is at the hands of their mothers or fathers, and 23 percent of the time it is by a male friend, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report. In many cases, experts say, the parents or caregivers are overwhelmed, isolated and unaware of the many resources available to them.

Recent infant murder cases in Minnesota include 8-month-old Benjamin Mitchell of Minneapolis, whose mother, Tasha, was charged in February with starving him to death, and 6-month-old Gustavo Hunt of St. Paul, whose adoptive father, Steven Showcatally, was charged last month with intentionally inflicting fatal head injuries to his son.

From mental illness and severe postpartum depression to impulsive acts by young, single mothers or fathers who never wanted a baby and feel overwhelmed, there are many reasons parents kill their children.

In many cases, however, infants die at the hands of mothers and fathers who ``just lose it'': who violently shake or slam an infant into a wall, said Marti Erickson, a developmental psychologist and senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Families Consortium.

Infants ``are just extremely dependent and needy, and . . . that really pushes the buttons of some parents who are not prepared to deal with it,'' said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

``A lot of people believe these are homicides that are relatively preventable. They are not, by and large, committed by people who have long antisocial or criminal ... records,'' he said.

In the Twin Cities, local child-abuse experts say, pressured parents can get help from 24-hour telephone hot lines, crisis nurseries, parenting classes and support groups.

``Nothing is so awful as having [stressed parents] sense that it is shameful to ask for help,'' said Connie Skillingstad, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota. ``Most successful parents know that you don't parent by yourself.''

Nationally, 265 children under 1 year of age were reported homicide victims in 2000. Because it can be difficult to prove that some infant deaths are homicides and not due to accidents or illness, however, ``many people think homicides ... are badly underreported at that age,'' Finkelhor said.

A vulnerable time

The incidence of homicides is relatively high in the first year of life, in part, because ``they are the most vulnerable, the most helpless. . . . As kids get older they can run and they can yell,'' Skillingstad said.

But a child's first year ``also is a really vulnerable time for parents,'' she said.

``The calls we get are from parents who are really concerned that they are impatient ... and frustrated. I think they also feel very much alone,'' she said.

``When you have a new baby, a funny thing happens: People don't [contact] you because they don't want to bother you. Your normal life stops and you're by yourself, ``Skillingstad said. ``Our experience is that isolation is probably the biggest problem with parents who abuse their children. ... There's just a feeling that you're in this all by yourself. There's a sense of powerlessness.''

Parents' risk of killing or seriously injuring their infants also increases with chemical dependency or untreated mental illness, experts say.

Providing parents with a basic knowledge of child development can help them avoid harming their infant, said Erickson, the U of M psychologist.

``If you don't know what babies are capable of, their need for almost constant attention, you start to attribute lots of negative things to them: ``That baby is just trying to get at me,'' or ``You're raising a mama's boy,'' she said.

Parents also can help themselves, experts say, by developing a coping strategy for the times when an infant causes them stress. That could include putting an infant in a crib and taking a shower, or having a list of people to call for support, they said.

Parents who themselves were abused as children need to come to terms with their past to safeguard against continuing that cycle, Erickson said.

A parent who denies or dismisses their own childhood abuse ``often will deny or dismiss their own child's emotional needs,'' she said.

``At the other end of the continuum, a parent who is preoccupied with the pain of their own childhood can't be constantly available to their child . ... They tend to be very unpredictable with their baby,'' Erickson said.

Help for men

Some government and private groups are developing programs to help men understand parenting and avoid hurting children.

The St. Paul-Ramsey County Department of Public Health and Health East have developed a ``quick guide to being a dad'' pamphlet with tips and help-line numbers that nurses are passing out to fathers in maternity wards.

Many men simply do not receive information about parenting or talk to each other about that important role, said Don Gault, manager of the department's healthy communities section.

But that doesn't mean they are not interested, something Gault found out when he and a colleague offered 3M employees a lunch-hour parenting program for men.

``I was expecting maybe 12 people, and 150 guys showed up. There were men thinking about being fathers, men about to become fathers, and grandfathers,'' he said. ``The help that is out there is more geared for young mothers than young fathers, and to a fair degree that's appropriate. But men need and want really usable information about parenting.''

Making efforts to give fathers parenting information, including places to seek help, can prevent infant deaths, Gault said.

``When a man kills a baby, it's horrific. And how do you understand that? But what I do know is that the difference between that happening and not happening is much simpler than we might think. We can find out what that family needed to avoid that,'' he said.

Paul Gustafson is at for parents

Help for parents

- United Way First Call for Help: 651-291-0211

- Minnesota 24-hour Domestic Violence Crisis Line: 1-866-223-1111

- Crisis Connection Counseling Hotline: 612-379-6363

- Men's Line at Crisis Connection: 612-379-6367

- Minneapolis Children's Hospital Warmline: 612-813-6336

- Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota: 1-800-CHILDREN

- Casa de Esperanza (St. Paul) crisis line: 651-772-1611

- Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery: 763-591-0100

- Anoka County Crisis Nursery: 763-785-9222

- Children's Home Society Family Services Crisis Nursery (Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties): 651-641-1300

- CAP Crisis Nursery (Scott/Carver counties): 952-402-9833

- Pillsbury Crisis Nursery, Minneapolis: 612-302-3500


Pound Pup Legacy