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Child abuse often linked to unrelated, live-in lovers

Thursday, April 26, 2001

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The story has a depressingly familiar ring to it. A small child lies near death after being severely beaten and the live-in boyfriend of the biological guardian stands charged with the crime.

Most statistics show that child abuse by unrelated adults living in the same household as the child is the exception rather than the rule.

Anecdotally, however, child abuse experts paint a different picture. In single-mother households, in particular, the boyfriend frequently ends up abusing the child, for a simple reason: a failure to bond with the child.

The issue came to the forefront this week in the case involving Anjanae Jaamere Bruce, the 3-year-old girl who remains in a coma at Children's Hospital after being severely beaten late Sunday.

In jail is Melvin "Charlie" Taylor, boyfriend of Anjanae's grandmother and legal guardian, Gwendolyn Tolliver. He has been charged with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of a child. Taylor was baby-sitting the child when the beating took place, according to police.

According to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, 50 children died in the state in 1999 as a result of abuse or neglect. In 28 cases, the mothers were the perpetrators; in 21, it was the father; in one, the stepfather; and in three,an unrelated adult companion. More than one adult may be linked to a child's death.

While there are no national statistics available from the federal government, a survey by the Child Welfare League of America bore out the state data, finding that anywhere from one-tenth to one-third of all child fatalities were caused by unrelated adults in the home.

"If you're looking at abuse overall, the natural parents are far more likely to be the perpetrators than anyone else," said Kevin Kirkpatrick, a spokesman for the Chicago-based Prevent Child Abuse America.

But, according to Walter Smith, director of Family Resources Inc., a local child-abuse prevention agency, ."it's very common, either because of a breakdown in attachment, or failure to create one" for live-in lovers to become involved.

"They don't love the kid," said Martin Daly, author of a number of Canadian studies on the issue. "A lot of stepmothers and boyfriends regard the kid as undesired baggage who they wish had never been born. The child remains a resented nuisance at best."

Daly is the co-author of a 1999 Canadian study that found that an American child living with one genetic parent and one step-parent or a live-in companion was 100 times as likely to suffer fatal abuse as a child living with two genetic parents.

And a number of other studies, in fact, strongly suggest that children being cared for by an unrelated adult are at far greater risk of injury or death than may have been previously believed.

A 1993 British study found the incidence of abuse was 33 times higher in a household where the mother was living with an unrelated boyfriend. And a study presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics of 175 Missouri children under the age of 5, who were murdered between 1992 and 1994, found that the risk of a child's dying at the hands of an adult living in the child's own household was eight times higher if the adult was unrelated.

It's not clear how thoroughly caseworkers at Children, Youth and Families investigated Tolliver's relationship with Taylor, who was on parole after having been convicted of voluntary manslaughter charges in 1993 and serving four years in jail. Marc Cherna, director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, declined to comment, citing state confidentiality.

But Cherna said that in foster care placements, the presence of a boyfriend would have prompted a background check, and if a criminal history was found, the courts would be informed. If there was evidence of violent criminal behavior, the agency would recommend moving the child out of the home. Tolliver had raised her granddaughter from birth and, with CYF's involvement, was in the process of adopting her.

"I've always seen unrelated adults as a high risk, a red flag, if you will, especially with young kids," Cherna said. "When you have unrelated adults living in the house and caring for children of toddler age especially, those children are at the highest risk. The paternal instinct is very different than it is in someone who is not related to this child."

While mothers may be the most frequent perpetrators according to the data, child injuries and deaths at the hands of a mother's boyfriend are "unbelievably common," added Mary Carrasco, director of International and Community Health at Mercy Children's Medical Center.

"We see this over and over again. People bring a new boyfriend into the house, and before long he's beating up the kids. We tell them to get rid of him, and they get another one that is just as abusive."

Smith says there's a simple explanation.

"Typically, the person who is violent is not capable of seeing the child as another human being who has feelings he or she can identify with. They tend to objectify the child, dehumanize the child."

Child abuse professionals need to do a better job at educating parents about selecting caregivers for their children, he added.

"If there's a past history of violence, you need to say, wait a minute, this guy has hurt other people. Whether it's a child or not, it's relevant in seeing whether he's capable of caring for others. We need to ask, what's the quality of this person's connection with this child, does he engage in a way that reflects that he's genuinely and authentically interested in the child's welfare?

"We need to do a better job at asking those questions."

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