Infant abuse cases leave many asking why

In a span of seven days, a Nashua hospital treated two infants for multiple bone fractures. Police say the babies were abused by fathers frustrated with the fundamental steps of parenting.

As the community recoiled at the extent of the infants’ injuries, prosecutors presented the underpinnings of their charges: The fathers used cruel measures to silence their babies’ cries and then cited ignorance when confronted.

These cases represent the extreme of abuse. And while severe mistreatment occurs infrequently, child abuse and neglect of any sort are nonetheless a reality, according to the state’s youth advocacy agency.

“This is somewhat unusual, and all the more disconcerting that there’s two in such a short period of time,” Nancy Rollins, director of the Division of Children Youth and Families, said of the severity of abuse in the two cases.

Doctors and nurses typically have such close contact with infants and their parents that signs of abuse are quickly apparent, Rollins said. Health-care workers observe a child’s parents from the prenatal stage to the many weeks beyond birth, so a parent’s attitude and commitment is noted, she said.

“They identify risk factors: if a parent is dealing with a significant health issue, abusing drugs, has difficulty controlling anger, if it’s an isolated family or especially if a mom appears to be uninterested in her own care,” Rollins said.

Eighty-one children younger than 1

suffered some form of abuse or neglect, according to reports handled by DCYF in 2002, the most recent year for which data was available. There were about 1,000 cases of abuse and neglect on children 18 and under that same year, according to DCYF.

Southern New Hampshire Medical Center in Nashua diagnosed the injuries of the two infants, a 4-month-old boy and a 3-month-old girl, within a week of one another, on Nov. 3 and 10 respectively.

In both instances, the parents told the hospital their children had been hurt in some other manner. Court records show the mother of the boy said he fell victim to an older sibling’s rough play. The girl’s mother allegedly told police her daughter fell off a bed, only to be dropped by a 4-year-old who picked her up.

The mother of the girl, 17-year-old Latoya Jackson of Nashua, is charged with filing a false report and endangering the welfare of her child. The mother of the boy, 38-year-old Kathleen Morse of Wilton, has been questioned but not charged, Hillsborough county attorney Marguerite Wageling said.

The fathers face serious charges of first-degree assault.

Jose Meza, a 25-year-old Manchester resident, shook his daughter Mariah to stop her from crying, police said. A week later, frustrated again from her cries, Meza hugged her tightly to his chest until he heard her bones crushing, police said.

He broke 17 of Mariah’s bones – including fracturing her arm and leg by twisting and pulling – and brought her to his native Mexico for treatment to avoid law enforcement here, police said.

Meza’s frustrations boiled over, police said, while performing the ordinary duties of care giving: changing his daughter’s diaper and clothes. Mariah is expected to recover.

Derek Whistler’s son Connor received treatment at the hospital a week earlier. The boy suffered eight fractured ribs, and broken bones in an arm and both legs, but they are not life-threatening injuries.

Whistler, 39, of Wilton, hurt Connor – who was born prematurely and who had been home from the hospital for only two months – while dressing him, placing him in a car seat and when the boy had an upset stomach, police said. Whistler told police he tried to overcome his irritation in caring for Connor but, “I friggin’ done it anyway,” an affidavit said.

Media accounts of the babies’ plight drew reaction from around the state. An e-mail from a reader who saw a newspaper account of Connor’s hospitalization typified the community’s sentiment.

“Seems like these stories are all over the place lately – it’s a terrible, terrible thing to hurt such a tiny little defenseless baby who already had so many odds ahead of him. . . . Please give him little kisses if you get to meet him,” the reader wrote.

Wageling said that in her career as a prosecutor she has seen a fair share of infant abuse cases, but that these two “represent the higher end of atrocity.”

Paul McDonough, a Hillsborough County assistant attorney for 24 years until recently joining a private practice, said he “honestly cannot imagine the dynamics for a parent to do that.”

“The system will work to protect the child, but how do you identify someone who would do that? I don’t know,” he said. “It doesn’t prevent it from happening. They were not deterred by threat of prosecution, obviously.”

A true examination of an abusive parent’s psyche is difficult, but a number of factors can lead to that behavior, Rollins said.

“Certainly not to absolve anyone’s behavior, but it has to be asked, ‘Are substance-abuse issues involved here? Has there been cycle of family violence?’ ” she said. “There are probably a number of things going on, but to pick on the most helpless and vulnerable . . . our children . . . it is very difficult to imagine what’s going on and imagine what would cause this.”

The perpetrators of child abuse and neglect cut across a wide swath of the population, Rollins said. Socioeconomic conditions don’t always determine who will abuse, but underlying stresses about employment and finances can play a role, she said.

Whistler is unemployed and was his son’s primary caregiver; Connor’s mother works. Meza, whose immigration status is unknown, works as a laborer.

Rollins echoed McDonough’s thoughts that the health-care system typically catches signs of abuse or neglect, but that the system can’t always prevent it. It can happen over long stretches of time, especially if the child is separated from discerning family members or neighbors.

“Other family members who notice this child is more fussy or has difficulty being diapered can see that it is indicative of perhaps injury,” Rollins said. “These children (Mariah and Connor) could not have been healthy babies. It raises the issue more that all of us have a responsibility.”

If a neighbor or family member notices signs of mistreatment, that person has a responsibility to ask if something is wrong, Rollins said. If parents feel stressed or overburdened with childrearing, they should speak to a doctor or health-care worker, or seek a support program, she said.

“Caring for children is not easy,” Rollins said. “And even the best of parents could use assistance. . . . Clearly it’s a matter of plugging people in and getting them assistance, not have them go it alone.”

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-5832 or