Correlation found between economy, child abuse cases

Ongoing economic pressures, combined with cuts to social services, is proving to be a deadly combination for infants and toddlers, health officials say.

Each year, an estimated 1,200 to 1,400 children are injured or killed by shaking in the United States. But according to a recent study that reviewed data from late 2007 to 2009, recession stressors are causing an increase in shaken-baby cases and other forms of brain-injuring abuse.

The study's author, Dr. Rachel Berger of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, said the uptick in abuse coincides with dramatic increases in unemployment rates in the 74 counties she reviewed.

The number of cases in the counties Berger studied increased from about 9 per 100,000 children in pre-recession years to almost 15 per 100,000 kids during the recession — a 65 percent increase.

In the Rogue Valley, five cases of abusive head trauma were reported in 2010. Four of the children were under the age of 1, said Dr. Kerri Hecox, medical director of the Children's Advocacy Center.

"That's a pretty dramatic increase," Hecox said. "And I definitely feel the recession has people more on the line."

Trying to soothe a steadily screaming baby under the best of circumstances can drive frustrated parents and caregivers to their breaking point. Add unemployment worries, the loss of one's home, and an inability to put food on the table, and you have a recipe for disaster, she said.

"It's a really big issue for people on the edge," Hecox said, adding that all but one of the Jackson County child-abuse cases "were precipitated by crying."

And as need is steadily increasing for support networks, social services agencies are being hard hit by state and federal budget cuts, she added.

"You can't just cut up to 40 percent in agencies (that support struggling parents and children) and expect people to be OK," Hecox said.

Hecox said the best vehicle for protecting children is public education. Parents and caretakers, especially less experienced ones, tend to think that caring for a child is supposed to be easy — and that they are not supposed to feel any negative emotions, she said.

When discussing the ups and downs of caring for a crying child with clients, Hecox opens the dialog by being open about the challenges she faces.

"I talk about my own frustrations," Hecox said. "That opens up the conversation. Parents need to know it's OK to be frustrated. They can put the baby down in a safe place for a few minutes and walk away. They can even go into the bathroom, put their headphones on and tune out the stress-inducing sounds of an unhappy, screaming child until they ratchet back the stress response," she said.

"We need to give people the space to say they're overwhelmed," Hecox said, adding the dialog is a tough one to get started.

People who are operating under a lot of stress need more support. Otherwise the culmination of stress and crying can "lead to that snap," she said.

"It's not about how you feel," Hecox said. "It's what you do that's important."

Approximately 25 percent of shaken babies will die as a result of their injuries. Of those who survive, 80 percent suffer permanent disability, such as severe brain damage, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, behavioral disorders and impaired motor and cognitive skills. Many survivors require constant medical or personal attention. Medical costs associated with initial and long-term care for these children can range from $300,000 to more than $1 million.

An educational collaboration at the birthing centers at Rogue Valley Medical Center, Providence Medford Medical Center, Ashland Community Hospital, Three Rivers Community Hospital in Grants Pass, the Jackson County Health Department and CAC offers a new educational effort called the Period of PURPLE Crying program.

One of the teaching elements used is a 10-minute DVD being given to every new mother at all four Rogue Valley hospitals. The DVD explains normal infant crying, offers ways to reduce stress related to the crying and informs them of the dangers of shaking an infant. Designed to stop child abuse triggered by the stress of inconsolable infant crying, the message is simple: Stop, breathe and reset your mind. People think they would never harm their child. But statistics show the No. 1 trigger for child abuse is crying, said Hecox.

Hecox said she would like to see more educational programs on this topic in area high schools. Babysitters and struggling young parents are at "high risk" for committing abuse, she said.

"We want them to get this information in their health classes before these kids become parents themselves," she said.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email

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