When abused babies are like car crashes — journalists need to ask more questions about teen charged with child abuse

This 18-year-old was charged with felony child abuse, according to a story on SunHerald.com, a news site covering the Biloxi-Gulfport, MI, area. Police say he broke the leg of his two-month-old son. “Investigators believe that it was a case of a young parent getting frustrated with a crying baby while trying to change his diaper,” says the story.

The first thing that struck me is that this 18-year-old looks so much younger than 18. His wife is reported as being 16 years old. That’s a red flag. All parents need help with newborns. Young parents who are still children or barely adults usually need even more help.

The second thing that struck me is that if we ever have a shot at preventing childhood trauma, journalists need to report on child abuse the way we learned to report about traffic accidents.

What’s the link between a baby and a car crash? Bear with me. It won’t take long to explain.

Until the 1960s, traffic deaths and injuries were typically blamed on “the nut behind the wheel.” Really. Every single crash, death, and injury was the driver’s fault.

Those were the days when steering columns didn’t collapse, so that in crashes that people walk away from today, steering columns speared drivers through the heart with regularity. Telephone poles were planted only six inches from the edge of the pavement. Many intersections were death traps. Windshields broke into sharp pieces that peeled faces off. Dashboards were hard metal. If you were driving 20 mph, a sudden impact guaranteed that something in the car would injure you. Seat belts? Airbags? No such things.

The car and the road were ignored as contributing to fatalities and injuries. Then, in the 1960s, public health experts and injury control scientists included vehicles and roadways in their analysis of auto deaths and injuries. Since 1975, the U.S. Fatal Accident Reporting System (FARS) has gathered information about every U.S. vehicle fatality that includes data about the vehicle, the environmental conditions, and the driver.

As a result of those data, subsequent research and political pressure (anybody out there remember Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at any Speed”???), manufacturers today wouldn’t dream of making — and no parent would buy — a car without a collapsible steering column, seat belts, shoulder harnesses, roll bars, padded dashboard, anti-lock brakes, airbags and safety glass. Highway engineers improved the safety of roads and intersections. States passed seat-belt laws and created stiff penalties for people driving drunk.

Without these changes, an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 people would be dying on the roads each year, instead of 33,000.

Today, when the news media report on auto crashes, reporters ask these questions: Were the occupants wearing their seat belts? Was the car equipped with enough air bags? Was there something wrong with the car? Was the driver drinking alcohol or under the influence of other drugs? Was the driver texting or otherwise distracted? Was the roadway impaired or the intersection known for being dangerous? In other words, we’re tuned into to asking questions about the driver, the car and the roadway.

So, what are the questions we journalists should ask in cases of child abuse? Here’s what I would like to know about this case of the teenage parents:

  • Did the father finish high school?
  • Was the mother in high school when she became pregnant? If so, did she receive any information about resources for or education about parenting?
  • Are they employed?
  • If not, what social service agencies are helping them?
  • What is their income level? If low, what social service agencies are helping them? If middle or high, what support are they receiving from their community (church, neighborhood association, etc.)?
  • Was the baby born in a hospital? If so, does the hospital provide parenting classes, and did the parents participate?
  • Did breast-feeding support groups contact and follow-up with the parents? Were the parents participating?
  • Are there parent-assistance organizations such as Nurse-Family Partnership available in the community for this family?
  • If the baby was not born in a hospital, what help did these parents have during the birth? What resources did they provide the parents?
  • Do the parents have extended family to assist them or were they struggling by themselves?
  • What’s the history of the parents? Did they experience childhood trauma? Do they know their ACE scores?
  • Was child welfare or the police ever called to this family before? When these parents were children, were child welfare or police every called to assist their families?
  • What assistance are the teen mother and her baby receiving now?
  • What services are available to assist the mother and her son after the infant is released from the hospital?

In other words, what commitments has the community made to step in and help babies and their parents when it’s obvious that they desperately, desperately need assistance in a job that they’re so obviously not prepared for? A job, that if not done well, has dire consequences for the child, the parents and the community?

Catch my drift? This family is like a car without a padded dashboard, safety glass, anti-lock brakes, seat belts and airbags. Once we stop looking at every case of child maltreatment as the responsibility of ONLY the parent, and start including the community, more parents will be equipped and supported in life’s most important endeavor, and kids will grow up happier and healthier.

Ah. And that reminds me of a few more questions. If there was no intervention when there could have been….

  • How much did the police involvement cost the community?
  • How much did the baby’s surgery and hospital stay cost the community?
  • How much will the court case cost the community?
  • How much will imprisoning the father cost the community if he’s convicted and sent to jail?
  • And how many in the community can endure the thought of that infant suffering so much?

2 responses

  1. Thanks, Dan. One of the roles of the journo — the modern digital journalist — is to provide ample context and continuity in a solution-oriented matrix. These questions should come in handy for that approach!

  2. Jane, you make an excellent point (and also betray yourself as a thoughtful, thoroughgoing journalist). You know what happens in most newsrooms, though: We skim the surface of these cases and move on to the next one. It would be an improvement, though, if we just paused to reflect on questions like these before we race to the next story or broadcast.

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