Male caregivers scrutinized in violent deaths of children

A state-mandated study into child deaths and near-fatal injuries found men to blame two-thirds of the time.

The Child Mortality Review Board examined more than 200 preventable deaths of Minnesota children between 2005 and 2009.

Most of the cases chosen for review were homicides, or near-fatal inflicted injuries of children due to child maltreatment. But the board also reviewed accidents, such as drownings, unexplained infant deaths, and suicides.

In many cases, infants and toddlers were being cared for by unemployed fathers, stepfathers or boyfriends of the mothers. As a result, the study could prompt new scrutiny of men from child protection workers.

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The board examined 71 cases involving fatal or near-fatal inflicted injuries. Three-quarters of the deaths involved children under age four.


Female caregivers were most often the offenders in cases that involved neglect. But males were often the offenders in abuse cases, said Erin Sullivan Sutton, assistant commissioner for children and family services for the state Department of Human Services.

According to the report, 51 percent of the offenders who lived in the same household as the child were unemployed. Often they abused alcohol or drugs.

Half the incidents involved children under one year old. The most common cause of death was abusive head trauma or shaken baby syndrome.

Authorities and health officials have done a lot to educate the public about shaken baby syndrome. State law requires new parents to watch a video about how vulnerable infant brains are to shaking or blunt force before leaving the hospital, and health care providers bring it up at every well-baby visit until a child is three years old. Child care providers receive training.

But Sullivan Sutton said many potential caregivers don't receive that kind of training, so it falls to mothers to make sure they are leaving their children in safe hands.

"If mom knows that a caregiver or potential care giver has a potential for violence, has hit her or hit somebody else then she shouldn't leave the baby with that individual," she said. "If the person doesn't have experience caring for infants, that's not a good situation.

The report describes adults frustrated and angry by a child's crying, feeding, sleeping or toileting problems.

"We see kids are crying because they're hungry, kids are crying because they have soiled diapers and that crying is what triggers the violence," Sullivan Sutton said.


Becky Dale, interim director of Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota said the report it speaks to a need to educate the whole community about what it takes to care for children.

"It's a really fast learning curve when you become a parent," Dale said. "And one thing I noticed about the report was there wasn't any reference to education about child development before people become parents."

Dale suggests parenting education could start much earlier. Junior high students could learn how to comfort a crying baby, or about safe sleeping arrangements that won't smother a baby.

Given how often a child is killed by woman's boyfriend or unprepared father while the mother is at work, there are opportunities to improve children's lives, said Marcie Jeffrys, director of policy development for the Children's Defense Fund.

"I think we really need to look at our child care policies if we want to address those kids who are being left alone maybe with an adult who just isn't equipped emotionally to take care of them," she said.

Jeffrys said cuts in child care assistance mean fewer families have good options for safe places to leave their children, particularly those that have low-wage jobs. She notes that between 2003 and 2009, annual state spending for child care assistance decreased by one-fifth, and 4,000 families are currently on the waiting list.

Better child care could probably help, but it likely won't eliminate the danger these children are in, Jeffrys said.

Later this year, child protection workers will add some new questions to their risk assessments. They'll ask if a male is alone in caring for a child under three and if he's employed.

After two years of gathering data, the Department of Human Services will decide whether those factors should be weighed in determining the risk the child is in.