Valley hospital personnel say they are seeing a rise in child abuse cases and an increase in the severity of injuries in those cases.
Dr. Leslie Quinn, a forensic pediatrician at Phoenix Children's Hospital who serves on the hospital's Child Protection Team, told the Tribune that doctors have seen a troubling trend of child abuse in recent months.
"We are definitely seeing more cases, especially in the last four to six months," said Quinn, who has worked as a forensic pediatrician for the last 10 years. "And we worry about the ones we don't see. Poverty is a strong indicator, and although child abuse is not limited to homes experiencing financial difficulties, it does tend to increase in times of economic stress and correlates with the increase we see in such cases. There's more stress in the home."
Six high-profile abuse cases have surfaced in the East Valley in recent months including the death of a 4-year-old Mesa girl in May. Police say the girl was the victim of a severe beating by her mother's live-in boyfriend. That case is one of four in which police also arrested the mother for knowing about the abuse, but doing nothing about it, or for providing wrong information to police when first questioned.
The details of the abuse are unimaginable: A Gilbert mother is accused of sodomizing her 10-year-old adopted son with a toothbrush, forcing dog feces in his mouth, and burning him with a curling iron and a lighter, according to police.
Also in Gilbert, another mother was arrested after blowing marijuana smoke into her 10-month-old daughter's mouth, according to police.
Dr. Erin Nelson, a forensic psychologist in Scottsdale, said that while it is possible for an isolated incident to result in a child's death, lethal acts of violence against children are all too often the culmination of a pattern of escalating abuse.
"Child abuse is not new," Nelson said. "It's always a problem. For one to be able to abuse a child, there's been a breakdown in one's ability to cope with frustration, or you're talking about a selfish and disturbed person."
Nationally, five children die each day from severe abuse, and in Arizona alone, a child is abused every hour, according to Child Protective Services.
In 2008, there were 51 children who died from severe child abuse in Arizona. That number rose to 64 in 2009, according to CPS statistics.
Statistics for 2010 have not been totaled yet. But Arizona is mirroring the national trend of a rise in child abuse deaths, according to Steve Meissner, a CPS spokesman.
The amount of abuse cases coming through the doors of Phoenix Children's Hospital alone is staggering. The hospital's forensics team consulted with authorities on 183 cases last year, including eight fatalities, half of which occurred in December.
Last year, Phoenix Children's made 463 reports to CPS. The most significant of those included:
• 153, physical abuse.
• 79, physical neglect.
• 63, medical neglect.
• 68, substance exposed newborns.
• 38, sexual abuse.
A lack of connection to the child and inexperience in taking care of children only fuel the abuse when a child cries or becomes unruly while in the abuser's care, Quinn said.
"Often, the live-in boyfriend does not have a connection to the child and they don't have the skills to calm a fussing baby," Quinn said. "They have no emotional investment in the baby, and then, the babies often bear the brunt of their frustration while the mother is out working."
Although bruises from the beatings can eventually go away, physical and emotional scars can remain from the traumatic experience of ongoing abuse, Quinn said.
"How close a relationship the child has with the person who abuses them has a more serious effect on them, especially if it is a parent," Quinn said. "Kids who are physically abused have to find a way ... to emotionally deal with it, and that outcome often depends on the kind of abuse and how long it went on.
"For someone who is abused, it can affect their ability to cope and make rational decisions later, but every person has the inherent ability to adapt to or resist negative experiences in their life."
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