Officials: Child abuse severity spikes

Sharna Johnson

Critical injuries stemming from the abuse of two Clovis infants are in line with a statewide trend of increased severity in abuse cases.

“What we’re experiencing now is an increase in cases that the abuse is more severe,” said Romaine Serna, spokeswoman for New Mexico’s Children Youth and Families.

“Recently we’ve seen some kids with some pretty serious injuries; it’s cause for concern.”

Overall, she said statewide child abuse statistics haven’t spiked, just the severity of injuries.

Though doctors gave him a poor prognosis for surviving, police say a 6-month-old boy remains hospitalized and is undergoing physical therapy following ongoing abuse.

The abuse was uncovered Sept. 28 when an ambulance was called because he was struggling to breathe. Healthcare workers documented multiple broken bones, bruises and other injuries.

His 21-year-old mother Amanada Fain has been charged with child abuse causing great bodily harm and four siblings were removed from the home.

The same day the boy’s injuries were discovered, doctors found injuries to a 1-month-old Clovis girl, who was taken to the emergency room because she couldn’t keep her formula down.

Doctors were tipped off to the abuse when a scan of her gastro-intestinal system showed broken ribs, police Capt. Patrick Whitney said.

She underwent brain surgery and was in critical condition but improved and was eventually released to a foster family.

There is a person of interest in the little girl’s case, but an arrest has not been made, said Whitney.

With both children it may be up to two years before the extent of possible damage is known.

“It is approximately at that age that the children can be evaluated as to their mental development,” Whitney said.

The Clovis cases are examples of the types of severe injuries being caused to children, Serna said, explaining some cases are also resulting in death.

Serna said a number of factors could be influencing the trend.

A family in which child abuse occurs typically has a theme of some type, be it alcoholism, drug abuse, young parents, poverty or a family history of abuse.

Serna said it could be that the recent economic downturn is aggravating those factors and bring the abuse to a more extreme breaking point.

“With the economic downturn we are seeing families that are in economic crisis and if these are marginal parents with (poor) parenting skills… its almost like a perfect storm,” she said.

“All the issues before are still there and now on top of it services are less and people are not employed.”

Serna said the state’s protective services division has been held harmless against hiring freezes and cutbacks but many other services previously offered to families have been reduced because of the economy.

Clovis police refer an average of 16 child abuse charges per month, with all child abuse classified as felonies, its a number that has been consistent for the last few years with about 100 cases per year, Whitney said.

Those cases run the gamut, he said, from children left in hot vehicles, neglect, physical abuse or exposure to drugs or other illegal and dangerous activities.

The recent cases are among only a few in recent years that have risen to the level of great bodily harm or death.

In the more extreme cases, the victims tend to be younger children who are isolated from society because they aren’t yet in school and who are defenseless because they can’t yet talk.

“It seems like it tends to be a small infant or child that can’t tell anybody or be able to fight back — the most innocent that there is,” Whitney said.

In the cases where abuse is discovered it is often a medical provider, teacher or caregiver who alerts authorities, he said, explaining those are the people in the best position to notice the abuse.

Under state law, anyone aware of child abuse must report it or they could face charges themselves, he said.

“Everybody, and I mean everybody, under the state law regardless of who you are has an obligation to report child abuse,” Whitney said.

State law empowers police to act in emergencies and remove a child from obviously dangerous situations, Whitney said.

In other less obvious cases child services may conduct more long-term investigations, respond to investigate a report of child abuse and petition the court to remove a child.

Serna said when law enforcement removes a child from a home, a 48-hour hold goes into effect and protective services conducts an investigation that either results in the child being placed in foster care, with relatives or returned to the home.

When CYFD believes a child needs to be removed from a home it must heard in court and she said there is a procedure that must be followed.

“That parent will still have rights to that child until you have a court hearing to terminate their rights. Even the parents we know are guilty of the worst kind of abuse, they still have the opportunity to engage with the department and have a treatment plan,” she said.

“In cases where it’s a near death (abuse) the kids are probably not going to go home (but) the child has a lawyer, CYFD has a lawyer, the parents have a lawyer. Everyone has an opportunity to be heard in court including the parent that has committed a horrific act against their child.”

Serna said CYFD makes efforts to be proactive by educating and informing agencies that deal with children and families as well as community members to work towards prevention and outreach.

But ultimately they become involved when a report is made.

Likewise, police, “cannot prevent child abuse, but respond to stop it when it is discovered,” Whitney said.

“Child abuse and its root causes are a societal issue with many possible root causes within family groups,” he said, explaining law enforcement works with many groups from schools to CYFD to investigate allegations and refer charges.

Serna said CYFD’s intent is to begin working with parents and offer services to address family issues.

However if that is not in the best interest of the child, such as in the more extreme cases, the court process is the next step.