Child-abuse investigators see tragic pattern in Arizona cases
When Arizona logged its first suspected child-abuse death of 2012, it didn’t take long for authorities to turn their investigative sights on the mother.
Family history, plus familiar patterns of child abuse led investigators back to the troubled home.
Year after year, state child-abuse investigators document the same tragic pattern. Among them: Mothers are more likely than anyone to kill their kids. The victims more likely come from households with a history of domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse, poverty or separated parents.
Victim No. 1 this year, Za’Naya Flores, lived — briefly — through it all.
The Arizona Department of Health Services documents these indicators in its annual Child Fatality Review Report. Last year’s report found authorities suspected the mother in nearly half of the 70 child-abuse deaths in 2010, the most recent year with available data.
Authorities found fathers responsible a quarter of the time. Stepfathers or new boyfriends of the mothers were at fault 9 percent of the time, and investigators blamed only one death on a foster parent.
The victims are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. About three-quarters were younger than 4. One-quarter were newborns. Za’Naya died 22 months into her life. Her mother, aunt and grandmother have been charged with second-degree murder in her death.
Child-welfare experts say the statistics make sense: Mothers often get overwhelmed from the stress of caring for newborns and toddlers, many of whom die from neglect. Older children are more likely to be beaten to death, often by men.
In 2010, of the 70 deaths of children the state considered “maltreated,” 21 were victims of murder. But in nearly as many cases — 18 — state investigators never determined the cause. In the remaining cases, children died of other causes, but the state held someone responsible for their death because of maltreatment.
And in addition to those child-abuse cases, another 74 children died for unknown causes, something other than an accident, a medical problem, abuse or murder.
The number of indeterminate cases could be a sign that some child-abuse deaths are slipping through the cracks, said Dr. Mary Ellen Rimsza, who chairs the Arizona Child Fatality Review Program.
“That’s why the child-fatality review teams were created here and nationally. We probably are missing some, but it’s probably a lot less than we used to,” Rimsza said.
In the most recent five years with available data, the number of child-abuse cases has trended up, while the number of mystery-death cases doubled. This at a time the overall number of child deaths fell by a quarter.
Rimza wasn’t surprised.
“Child abuse happens more often when people are stressed,” she said, noting that hard economic times lead to more cases.
There could be a variety of reasons for the fluctuation and rise in the number of inconclusive cases. Police investigators have different experience levels depending on where they work. Sometimes subjective judgment comes into the equation. One criminal investigator may see a shaken baby as an accident, another a homicide.
Some forensic experts in small communities may lack resources to go far into a case beyond an autopsy while others may be more reluctant to offer definitive judgments, Rimsza said.
“The medical examiner isn’t as comfortable saying a death was an accident or maltreatment,” she said. “That’s happening more and more. It’s a national trend.”
Sometimes the evidence is not as clear cut as it first appears.
In 2007, paramedics were called to a report of a dead boy at an in-home daycare in Peoria run by a mother and a professional baby-sitter of 25 years. The baby-sitter found the baby boy lying motionless 90 minutes after his parents dropped him off. The boy had seemed healthy and alert. The baby-sitter had left him on the floor and turned to attend to other children for 20 minutes.
Forensic pathologists, and later the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office, all agreed there were signs the boy’s brain was bruised and swollen, and his skull had been fractured. The cause of death was ruled blunt-force trauma — a fatal blow to the head — and investigators blamed the babysitter. Prosecutors charged her with first-degree murder, and she faced the death penalty.
But prosecutors overlooked conflicting medical evidence. The baby had been running a high fever days before. There were no external marks on his body. Three years later, a Superior Court judge threw the entire case out, exonerating the baby-sitter and ruling prosecutors could never charge her again in the case.
As science evolves about baby-shaking, SIDS and other sudden mysterious causes of child deaths, authorities adjust their findings.
Differences in interpretation and record keeping cause discrepancies across the country in measuring the depth of the child-abuse problem. That complicates attempts to measure how Arizona compares to other states. It also means the federal government underestimates the prevalence of child-abuse nationally, congressional researchers found.
Arizona, for instance, had 20, not 70, child-abuse deaths in 2010, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, national database compiled by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services. That’s because not every potential child-abuse case is reviewed by Arizona’s Child Protective Services, from which the federal data is gathered. Arizona’s annual report considers other sources, such as police reports, investigative files and forensic analysis not always available to CPS.
Last year, the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative agency, reported that the national database undercounts the number of children killed by abusive caregivers.
The GAO found that half the states don’t rely on complete records, and they may be underestimating by as much as 75 percent the number of children killed by abuse.
By those federal standards, Arizona fares better than most. In 2010, the abuse fatality rate was almost half of the national average.
But even with flawed data, some of the national demographics offer stark reminders of what contributes to the pattern of abuse. Roughly one in six killer caregivers is a victim of domestic violence, according to the national database.
In about a quarter of the 2010 Arizona-documented cases, CPS had some file on the family. Of those, a third of the cases were still open.