Deep in the basement of the Los Angeles County coroner's office, two Los Angeles Police Department detectives huddle over a tiny body. It is almost lost on the autopsy gurney. It is a baby boy.
Christopher's mother said he died sleeping in his crib, apparently of sudden infant death syndrome. But the prognosis changes as the coroner cuts the little boy's head to reveal the skull. The flesh is red, bruised. There are two half-inch fractures. Baby Christopher, it seems, may not have died so innocently.
"He was just 1 month old," LAPD detective Carmen Ibarra says quietly.
It is a scene Ibarra--and police around the country--increasingly face as the number of children killed by their parents and caretakers continues a grim and steady climb. In 1991, Los Angeles County saw such homicides increase by a third. Nationwide, the government says four children are killed by their parents or guardians each day--a 54% jump in the last six years to 1,383 fatalities in 1991.
Statistics kept by the Orange County Sheriff's Department do not have breakdowns for infants but only list homicides of children under 12. In 1991, Lt. Bob Rivas said, there were eight in that age group killed, 14 last year.
Child advocacy groups note that many children's deaths are not investigated and estimate that more than three times that number are shaken, suffocated or bludgeoned to death each year by the very people meant to protect them. More than half of these children die before their first birthday.
Authorities say the killings are fueled by mounting stresses on dysfunctional families and government's failure to protect its most vulnerable.
A national survey by the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse found that more than 41% of child abuse deaths occur after intervention by child protective service agencies. One 10-month-old Los Angeles boy was beaten to death after 52 contacts with child protective, law enforcement and other agencies, none of which knew about reports made to the others.
Child protective agencies fail to investigate one in five calls reporting abuse. Even in cases where child abuse is substantiated, 37% of children get no services, up from 22% in 1990, a survey by the child abuse advocacy group found.
Ironically, police say the homicide rate is rising as social workers try to spare abused children from foster care and instead quickly reunify them with their parents. Adding to the problem, they say, is a growing trend to put more than half the children placed outside the home with relatives--in a cheaper alternative to foster care. Because child abuse is often learned from a parent, many relatives also turn out to be child abusers.
The Los Angeles Police Department child abuse unit, the nation's first such law enforcement detail, is closest to the battle against child abuse. Dubbed "kiddie cops" or "diaper detectives," the unit was once the only place women could do homicide work.
In a cavernous pink room at Parker Center, 30 detectives, some of whom were themselves abused as children, juggle child abuse and homicide cases. Two tall file cabinets house dozens of "murder books," blue binders giving grisly details of how each child died.
"It's not like you are dealing with stolen cars," said Joan M. Schipper, a supervisor in the unit, explaining why some leave after just one month. "Here, you are dealing with stolen lives."
Today, Detective Raul Galindo fears for Teresa, which is not her real name. It is the eighth time in 1 1/2 years that school officials have called to report her as a suspected abuse victim. In the latest incident, the 12-year-old came to class with black eyes and her face a mass of purple-black bruises.
At the elementary school, the vice principal said the student is fearful of going home after school; she writes the vice principal love letters and tells friends she wishes she would adopt her.
"You'll be fine. I'm here for you," Galindo says as Teresa enters the principal's office. A burly man known to get on his hands and knees to talk to toddlers, Galindo moves close to the girl, holds her hand, and says: "I'll make a deal. I will always tell you the truth. Will you always tell me the truth?" The girl nods.
"My mom hits me all the time," she says, stretching her swollen wrist toward him as tears streak down her cheeks and soak her gray sweat shirt. "I want someone who loves me."
Back at Parker Center, Galindo learns that that is unlikely. Teresa's stepfather, uninterested, says: "What can I do? She isn't my child." The girl, he adds, was born after the girl's mother, Maira, was raped.
"She acts like a dummy. She's stupid," Maira says.
Only when Galindo threatens to put the pregnant mother behind bars does her demeanor change. "I just can't control myself," Maira says. She begins to sob. "I promise you it won't happen again," she vows.
"What if you break this promise and the girl ends up dead?" Galindo asks.
Maira does not respond.