Child abuse uptick in state not easily defined

 Nationally, data shows that child abuse has declined since 1992

By Steve Young
Argus Leader

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A child was eulogized this week in Sioux Falls, a little boy who had been thrust into the public consciousness because of the horrible way he died and because of his famous football father.

Two-year-old Tyrese Ruffin’s death, which happened when he was alone with a man with whom he and his mother lived, turned a national spotlight on Sioux Falls and the boy who also happened to be the son of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.

But the more tragic reality here is the fact that this was just the latest headline in a string of child abuse tragedies across the state during the past few years. Among the others:

— Manegabe Chebea Ally is charged in the death of his live-in girlfriend’s 18-month-old son last December in their Sioux Falls apartment.

— Chris Miller, 39, of Scotland is found guilty in January of striking and killing his 4-month-old son, Jacob, in 2011.

— Jay Barse, 25, of Watertown pleads not guilty in March to causing the head trauma that killed 14-month-old Serenity Sea Boy, the daughter of his girlfriend.

— Edward Berges of Colorado pleads guilty in May to first-degree manslaughter in the death of his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter in their Rapid City apartment.

— Michael Dean Dubray of Allen on the Pine Ridge Reservation faces a first-degree murder charge in the death of a 10-month-old boy May 30 at a home eight miles north of Loneman.

— And a federal jury in August convicts Mario Contreras of Waubay in the abuse that killed his 2-year-old daughter, Aleeyah Cook.

Now Joseph Patterson stands accused of the Oct. 9 beating that killed Tyrese Ruffin. But ask law enforcement, prosecutors and experts in infant homicide if all these deaths represent an uptick in the incidence of child abuse in this state, and the answer isn’t so easy to discern.

The number of persons in Minnehaha County charged with felony child abuse virtually doubled between 2011 and 2012, from 27 to 53 individuals. That could be a result of city growth or increased education and recognition of abuse, Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Aaron McGowan told the Argus Leader.

It also could reflect his office’s more aggressive stance in charging child abuse in cases where a child is in a motor vehicle with an impaired or intoxicated driver. “Those cases are a top priority in our office,” he said.

Nationally, 20 years of data reported by states’ child protection agencies to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System shows that physical abuse of children across the country has decreased 56 percent since 1992, and 69 percent in South Dakota.

While there is no consensus in the child maltreatment field about why that decline has happened, experts point to relatively sustained economic growth in the first 15 years of that period, increases in the numbers of law enforcement and child protection personnel, more aggressive prosecution and incarceration policies and growing public awareness of the problem.

Anecdotally at least, South Dakota officials don’t believe child abuse trends have changed all that much in recent years.

Sgt. Tim Hagen, in the Sioux Falls Police Department’s Crimes Against Persons division, sees no significant spike. “Through media coverage, I think these cases are more publicized,” Hagen said. “But as far as the numbers, hard and fast, I’m not seeing or noticing any kind of spike.”

Neither is Dr. Brad Randall, a forensic pathologist and member of the Regional Infant and Child Mortality Review Committee for Minnehaha, Lincoln, Turner, Moody, McCook, Lake, Union, Hanson, Miner and Brookings counties.

“Our sense over the time that the committee has been running, since 1997, is that the numbers have stayed pretty much constant,” he said.

At the Children’s Inn, which provides safe housing for those trying to escape abusive relationships, the number of children it has served who have been abused or neglected is at 158 so far this year, compared to 363 during the same period in 2010.

But don’t interpret that as a decline in child abuse, said Amy Carter, operations director for Children’s Inn. That simply reflects a move by Child Protection Services in the past year or so to institute what it calls a present-danger plan. Now instead of going through formal court actions to remove children and place them in foster care or at places such as Children’s Inn, Child Protection Services is working harder to get those children placed with relatives.

“That doesn’t mean there are less children coming into care,” Carter said. “It just means they’re not using us as a first option. It has nothing to do with our services. It’s the idea that it’s always going to be better for the child if they can be placed with a family member in a home setting.”

But what of children in the home? Should a parent who leaves her child in the care of someone with a history of violence face the same consequences as someone who drives drunk with a child in the car?

It’s not an easy question to answer, local officials say.

In cases where, say, a woman is constantly being beaten by her husband or boyfriend but still repeatedly asks for charges against her partner to be dropped, Mees will ask for children in the home to be removed. “That’s putting a child in a situation that is potentially injurious to their welfare,” Mees said. “From a civil standpoint, we can deal with that.”

But McGowan said cases where somebody makes a bad decision to leave a child with somebody else, “and that person causes a direct injury, I can’t think of a case where we can hold somebody criminally accountable for that. ... where it would be prosecuted at all. It’s just too far removed.”

Carter at Children’s Inn said she knows there are situations where a woman develops a relationship with a man who has a history of violence, “but he is very charming, very charismatic, and that draws people in.”

“He convinces her that the abuse was a one-time thing, or that it won’t happen again. We see that a lot in people who are very manipulative,” Carter said. “And if it’s at the beginning of a relationship, she wants to believe him. But once in that situation, it becomes very difficult when things change. It’s very hard for people to understand when you aren’t living it or haven’t experienced it yourself.”

There are attempts underway to change that lack of understanding. The South Dakota chapter of Prevent Child Abuse is holding its first board meeting in two weeks in Pierre. Officials with law enforcement, social services and health care systems, among others, are meeting to take a broad look at the scope of child abuse in the state and to determine strategies to deal with it.

There also has been a program evolving during the past two years through the Sanford and Avera health systems called the Period of PURPLE Crying, which is working to educate parents and other caregivers on why young babies most often cry.

When he pleaded guilty in May to killing the 2-year-old daughter of the woman he was living with in Rapid City, 24-year-old Edward Berges described how “she wouldn’t cooperate with me, and I became frustrated. In the heat of the passion, I struck her without any intention of causing her death.”

Connie Schmidt, director of Child’s Voice at the Sanford USD Medical Center, said the goal of the PURPLE Crying program is to prevent incidents like that, and to get material to every parent while they’re in hospitals with their newborns to educate them on why it is babies cry. The more caregivers understand that, she said, then the less likely it is, hopefully, that they will hurt the child or cause injury through shaken baby syndrome.

“We’re still implementing the program in hospitals across the state,” Schmidt said. “Not every hospital is utilizing the materials yet, but we believe we can make a difference by having that information out there.”

Unfortunately, that won’t happen soon enough for the child eulogized last Wednesday in Sioux Falls — or for any of the children shaken and beaten and killed across South Dakota during the past few years.

But McGowan, Schmidt and the others insist they are continuing to look for answers and ways to stem that tide of tragedy in the future.

“Fortunately in Sioux Falls, we have a community that cares deeply about children,” McGowan said. “I think education is a big part of this effort. We need to equip parents and caregivers to recognize red flags when something is wrong or likely to happen. I really think that’s how we will make a difference.”


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