For a 20-year-old Oshkosh man, the persistent crying of his 2-month-old daughter – coupled with stress and a lack of sleep – were too much to bear.
The man shook the baby, asked her why she was crying and knelt on her legs while changing her diaper, Winnebago County authorities said. It was later determined that the infant had multiple broken bones, injuries to her face and head and brain bleeds. A felony child abuse charge was filed in early March.
While the nature of the allegations were disturbing, it’s only one of a number of cases in Wisconsin – past and present – involving unspeakable acts of violence against children.
“There has been an increase in more severe cases over the past few months – and I’m not sure why that is,” said Dr. Angela Rabitt, associate professor of pediatrics, child advocacy and protection services at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
Rabbitt said the number and the severity of child abuse cases had remained stable since 2009. But there has been a recent uptick, she added.
Her assessment is supported by a series of recent prosecutions in Wisconsin, including the case of the Oshkosh man accused of harming his daughter.
In another case, a 28-year-old Milwaukee man was charged in April with repeated physical abuse of a child, causing great bodily harm and child neglect involving a 14-month-old boy. The boy was beaten severely over several days because the child wouldn’t sleep, authorities said.
In Wausau, a 28-year-old man was charged earlier this year with breaking his infant daughter’s arm and six other bones in her body.
In addition to that sampling of recent incidents, several shocking cases that were previously filed were disposed of in the past few months.
That list includes an Illinois man who was sentenced in Fond du Lac County court to 65 years in prison for killing a 14-month-old boy and severely injuring his twin in July 2015. Police said he purposely stepped on the boy, causing fatal injuries.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a worse way to die or worse injuries,” Judge Dale English said in imposing the prison term.
In early May, a 43-year-old Menasha man was sentenced to 40 years in prison for sexually abusing an infant girl, starting just weeks after she was born. He also was convicted on multiple counts of possession of child pornography.
“This is by far the worst (case of child/sexual abuse) that I’ve ever seen,” said Menasha police investigator Stephanie Gruss.
Winnebago County Judge Karen Seifert, who imposed the sentence, rejected the defendant’s claims of innocence. “This wasn’t an accident,” Seifert told the assailant. “It was something that you planned and you wrote about and you shared with perverted friends on the Internet.”
There’s no overriding reason why children are abused by parents or adult caregivers, but there are some common traits, according to Rabbitt.
“The most common trigger for abuse is crying in children,” she said. “Especially infants. Sometimes they can cry for up to five hours a day.”
In some cases, parents who inflict abuse on young children don’t understand the normal development of children.
“Some believe they can be potty trained in the early days of life,” Rabbitt said. “They don’t understand normal development.”
Poverty, mental health issues and domestic discord between parents can also lead to child abuse, she said.
“Parents who commit this kind of crime may think the baby doesn’t like them,” Rabbitt said. “They may have frustrations in their lives (and that) can lead to an episode of abuse.
“It can be an otherwise loving parent who feels a loss of control.”
Rabbitt strongly suggested that a parent or caregiver who is under intense stress put the baby down until things settle down.
“Teaching caregivers how to cope with crying and strategies to cope with crying is part of education,” she said.
Rabbitt wants education opportunities about the impact of crying babies to include high school students so they become aware of the problem before they become parents.
Early detection vital
In recent years, there has been a focus on detecting child abuse early to prevent severe abuse in the future, according to Rabbitt.
She said a 2013 study indicated that nearly 30 percent of victims had prior injuries, including bruising or small lacerations.
“One type of sentinel (previous) injury we see many people miss is bruising in very young infants who are not yet mobile,” Rabbitt said. “Babies who are not cruising (pulling up along furniture) should not be bruising. Bruised infants who are not yet mobile are at very high risk for abuse.”
In addition to reports of suspected abuse from mandated sources – such as medical providers and school officials – neighbors and family members also have reported concerns to authorities.
“People should contact child protective services (if they see signs of child abuse),” Rabbitt said. “You could be saving their lives.”
Not all suspicions clearly point to abuse, she cautioned.
“Sometimes, it is clear; sometimes it is not. In some cases, we had to say ‘we can’t tell.’
“Unjustly accusing someone of abuse is just as egregious as missing abuse in children,” Rabbitt said.
Factors that can lead to child abuse
Poor control over their emotions
Lack of parenting skills
Drug or alcohol abuse
Believing that children should be quiet at all times
Inability to cope with stress
Failure to understand the needs of children
Using fear and embarrassment to make children obey
Relationship problems, including domestic abuse
Focusing on their problems rather than their children