The public knows sudden infant death syndrome as a mysterious, unpreventable death that strikes otherwise healthy babies in their sleep. But in a series of stories, the Charlotte Observer concludes that a SIDS ruling can often mask the real cause of death. Medical examiners are supposed to call deaths SIDS only after a thorough scene investigation, autopsy and review of a baby's medical history have ruled out all other causes. But in North Carolina, newborns and other infants have died face down in pillows and soft couches. They have died in adult beds alongside one or more people, or with their heads covered in blankets. In some cases, police have suspected foul play, even homicide.
North Carolina's chief medical examiner often calls those deaths SIDS. That's different from what a growing number of national experts say may be the real killer: suffocation. "SIDS has been used as an easy option," says Dr. Ljubisa Dragovic, chief medical examiner in Michigan's Oakland County, whose office rarely uses the SIDS diagnosis. "It has had a catastrophic effect. Every year babies die of preventable causes." A Charlotte Observer investigation has found that in North Carolina, two-thirds of SIDS autopsies list risks that raise the possibility that babies may have suffocated because of unsafe bedding or sleeping with another person.
On National Missing Children's Day yesterday, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance told the Wall Street Journal he had reopened the investigation into the disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz, the blond-haired, blue-eyed boy who disappeared 31 years ago yes terday and never returned.
Vance, who took office New Year's Day when Robert Morgenthau retired after 35 years, has directed his prosecutors to take a fresh look at a case that has haunted New York for decades. Morgenthau argued there was insufficient evidence to proceed in the case. The prime suspect in the case is Jose Ramos, who was the boyfriend of a woman who had earlier been hired to walk Etan to school during a bus strike. Ramos is in prison for molesting two boys. Etan was declared legally dead in 2001. In 2004, a judge found Ramos responsible for Etan's death in a civil case.
The father of abducted and murdered California teenager Amber Dubois is working with lawmakers to develop a series of measures, mostly to help authorities respond quickly when children are snatched off the streets, reports the San Diego Union-Tribune. “There are gaps and flaws in the system,” said Moe Dubois. “We are trying to recognize those, trying to close those with small legal patches. You can’t fix everything in one day.”
Amber was killed Feb. 13, 2009, by convicted sex offender John Gardner III, who is set to be sentenced next week to life in prison without parole. He also killed teenager Chelsea King. The legislative package on searches is expected to be unveiled May 25, a day set aside every year to mark National Missing Children’s Day. One idea he is suggesting would require child sex predators to carry driver’s licenses identifying them as such. That way, police and businesses can be alert for signs of inappropriate contact with children, such as a teddy bear in a back seat or loitering at a pizzeria during a birthday party.
Invoking two prominent suicides, Massachusetts lawmakers unanimously approved a sweeping measure to crack down on school bullying, saying its strict requirements for reporting student harassment make it one of the nation’s toughest, the Boston Globe reports.
The law includes broad prohibitions against any actions that could cause emotional or physical harm, including text messages and taunting over the Internet. It also mandates antibullying training, for faculty as well as students, and requires that parents be informed of incidents at school. At the heart of the measure is the requirement that every school employee, including custodians and cafeteria workers, report incidents of suspected bullying and that principals investigate each case.
Alabama authorities are concerned about a spike in abuse homicides of children. In the 12 months ending last Sept. 30, the state counted four cases of fatal abusive head trauma, reports the Montgomery Advertiser. Since Oct. 1, there have been four more such homicides, meaning there have been as many in the past six months as there were in the preceding year. There were just two cases of abusive head trauma leading to death the year before that.
The numbers are a cause for concern, but it too soon to say definitively that they indicate a trend, officials said. Some believe the economy could be to blame for the spike. Richard Burleson, director of the Alabama Child Death Review System, said, "I'm aware that there is a very real concern nationwide that cases of abuse and neglect have increased with the downturn in the economy." Most recently in Montgomery, 1-year-old Lia Hall was killed by blunt force trauma to the head. Her stepfather, Geoffrey Mendenall, has been charged with capital murder.
Should there be a statute of limitations on sexual abuse? An effort by New York legislators to bring accountability for sexual abuse to the Catholic clergy has grown to cover people in other occupations, such as teachers. One proposal would allow people to file lawsuits as much as 40 years after alleged abuse. New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer writes, "It is a collision of powerful civic values: the need to provide justice to people who were outrageously injured as children and manipulated into silence, and the duty of courts to decide cases based on reliable evidence."
The proposed changes were not controversial when they applied only to the clergy. But after much debate, the bill was amended to include governments and their employees. "Suddenly," Dwyer writes, "lobbyists and advocates for school boards, counties and small towns spoke out." “Statutes of limitation exist for a reason,” said Bob Lowry, the deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “How can anyone go back 40 years and ascertain what happened? Witnesses, responsible authorities, even the perpetrator himself or herself, may have passed away.”
With a strikingly aggressive prosecutorial stance, authorities spelled out a litany of charges against nine teenagers accused of subjecting Phoebe Prince, 15, of South Hadley, Ma., to months of tortuous harassment before she hanged herself in a stairwell at home, the Boston Globe reports. District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel faulted officials at South Hadley High School, saying the girl’s harassment had been “common knowledge,’’ contradicting administrators’ previous assertions that they had been unaware of problems until after her death.
The nature of the charges — ranging from criminal harassment and civil rights violations to stalking and statutory rape — hints at a forceful strategy of taking many legal avenues in the pur suit of convictions, legal specialists said. “It’s an aggressive approach,’’ said Robert Griffin, a former Suffolk County prosecutor. “They are casting a wide net.’’ The vast majority of the bullying took place during the school day, Scheibel said, and online harassment played a secondary role. The school’s inaction was “troublesome’’ but did not constitute criminal behavior, she said, adding that a lack of “understanding of harassment associated with teen dating relationships’’ was prevalent at the school.
Los Angeles County is starting an electronic system for sharing information on suspected child abuse among social workers, police agencies, and prosecutors, a move it hopes will reduce the number of abused or neglected children whose cases fall between the cracks, reports the Los Angeles Times.
District Attorney Steve Cooley called the Web-based Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Report System a "giant leap forward" and said it is the first of its kind in the nation.
About 28,000 reports have been entered into the system so far. California law requires that child welfare agencies and law enforcement cross-report any allegations of child abuse so a criminal investigation can be launched at the same time that social workers are looking after the child's welfare. Previously, the cross-reporting between agencies relied on a patchwork system via fax or mail that led to reports being lost in the shuffle or being sent to the wrong agency, causing errors and delayed police response. In some cases, charges were dismissed or lesser charges were filed against alleged abusers because of missing information. Under the old system, it was hard for social workers to find out whether criminal charges were ever filed against a child's alleged abuser or to keep track of the court case.
While reports abound of students assaulting teachers and fellow students, what about abuse by teachers? Washington, D.C., school officials reported 220 allegations of students being choked, shoved, slapped, kicked, or verbally abused by teachers to impose discipline last year, says the Washington Post. School and police officials don't know how many of the accusations of corporal punishment and verbal abuse during the 2008-09 school year resulted in disciplinary action or criminal charges against teachers.
Nor could school officials explain the variable nature of totals from prior years. In 2005-06, 219 cases were reported, and the number dropped to 89 in 2006-07 and rose slightly to 96 in 2007-08, according to police figures. The allegations, provided to the police by Hawk One, the school system's former security contractor, were obtained by the Post under the Freedom of Information Act. They offer a vivid glimpse into an issue usually out of public view. That issue surfaced last month when Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee told a business magazine that an unspecified number of teachers laid off during October budget reductions "had hit children." At one school in 2008, a staff member reported passing a boys' bathroom and hearing a child say "ouch" and cry. She then heard an adult male voice say: "Now you know how it feels to hit someone."
A new federal study documents a dramatic decrease of serious child abuse, especially sexual abuse, reports the Associated Press. An estimated 553,000 children suffered physical, sexual or emotional abuse in 2005-06, down 26 percent from the estimated 743,200 abuse victims in 1993, the study found. Experts credit law enforcement crackdowns and public awareness campaigns. The findings are in the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, a congressionally mandated study conducted periodically by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The study is based on information from more than 10,700 “sentinels” — such as child welfare workers, police officers, teachers, health care professionals and day care workers — in 122 counties across the country. The detailed data collected from them was used to make national estimates. The number of sexually abused children decreased from 217,700 in 1993 to 135,300 in 2005-2006 — a 38 percent drop, the study shows. The number of children who experienced physical abuse fell by 15 percent and the number of emotionally abused children dropped by 27 percent.