Watch who's watching your kids, parents told
The bruises were there, but the mother wouldn't see. "He's a good guy," she insisted. "He wouldn't hurt my kids."
Julie Cochran, a social worker with Franklin County Children Services, had told the young woman that something seemed wrong in the home, and she strongly suspected that the boyfriend was to blame. "We couldn't put a finger on it, and we couldn't prove it," Cochran said. Days later, in the emergency room at Nationwide Children's Hospital, the mother believed.
With severe and fatal cases of child abuse on the rise, local child-welfare advocates have launched an awareness campaign that focuses on a common culprit: the partners of single parents.
Dubbed "Choose Your Partner Carefully," the project urges parents - especially mothers - to be extremely cautious about leaving children in the care of a boyfriend or girlfriend.
Since 2007, eight Franklin County children have died at the hands of a parent's abusive partner. That's half of the total number of child-abuse fatalities in the county during that time, said Children Services spokeswoman Deborrha Armstrong.
The 2-year-old boy whose mother convinced herself that his injuries were from roughhousing with brothers has recovered physically, said Karen Setterlin, a Children Services supervisor. "Save for about five more minutes, or one more blow, that could have been tragic," she said.
Two other children who police say were left in the care of male friends this summer couldn't be saved. Four-month-old Izabella Fields died July 29 of injuries that probably were caused by violent shaking, Columbus police said. Richard A. Davidson, a 25-year-old who was watching Izabella at a North Side apartment while her mom worked, is charged with murder and felonious assault in her death.
Dwann T. Allen, 18, also is charged with murder and felonious assault. Bexley police say his girlfriend's 22-month-old daughter, Zy'niah Braswell, died July 22 of abdominal injuries so severe that they resembled the effect of a fatal car crash.
Experts cite various reasons for the growing danger. With roughly 40 percent of all U.S. babies born to single women, living arrangements sometimes are loose. Children frequently are left alone with romantic partners who have no relationship to them, and even less patience and maturity.
"There's this feeling of being incomplete without a guy," Setterlin said. "We see a lot of serial dating." She also sees plenty of poor, young mothers who lack child care but need to work in order to keep their public-assistance benefits. "They're arriving at Children's, tearfully saying, 'I only left them with him for a short time. I had to go to work,'" Setterlin said.
Some studies have shown that children living with unrelated adults are nearly 50 times more likely to die from abuse than those who live with two biological parents. "Parents often assume that because their partner cares for them, they will also care for their child," said Yvette McGee Brown, president of the Center for Child and Family Advocacy at Children's Hospital. "This is potentially a deadly mistake."
Cochran and Setterlin say parents have to be clear-eyed and vigilant. Use public-access websites to check partners' court records, trust your gut and don't buy bogus explanations. "If it sounds ridiculous," Setterlin said, "it's not true."
How to carefully pick a partner
Child-welfare advocates say children can face danger, abuse or even death when their parents make poor choices about romantic partners. Before leaving a child alone with a boyfriend or girlfriend, consider the answers to these kinds of questions:
- Does your partner have children of his own? What kind of parent is he?
- Does he show anger or impatience when your child cries or has a tantrum?
- Does he ridicule your child or call the child names?
- Does he think it's funny to scare your child?
- Does he exhibit controlling or aggressive behavior?
If you think a child you know is being abused, make a confidential call to Franklin County Children Services at (614) 229-7000.