We are not certain of the true extent of the problem in this country. But statistics show that three to five children are killed by parents or caretakers each day in the United States. Of those, one child per week comes from Los Angeles County.
Most are very young. Two-thirds are under age 2 and 40% to 50% are under age one. The triggers tend to be chronic crying and toilet training, stresses that arise in caring for a child that age.
One of the common factors is a parent who is unprepared for the demands of caring for a very young child. Often in a moment of exasperation or in some cases substance abuse, they may take inappropriate action to stop a child from crying or to discipline a child because they don't understand why, for instance, a child might cry all night.
Isolation and poverty are strong factors. Very often the parent doesn't have good support from extended family, friends or neighbors, so they feel trapped. When you lack resources, you can't get a break from your kids. You can't afford babysitters or vacations. These crimes are more likely in urban areas or sparsely populated areas because of the stress or the isolation. Often parents who kill were abused themselves. There's an almost reflex action to respond in the way your parents responded to you.
The most common \o7 single \f7 category of caretaker who kills a child is the mother because mothers are most commonly the caretakers for young children. But they are still a minority of the cases. Nationally, 70& to 80% of caretakers who kill children are men: fathers, stepfathers, male companions and so on. In L.A. County that figure is 60%. We don't yet have anything solid on why (there's a difference).
In most cases, parents say they didn't mean to kill the child, but rage or frustration got out of control. Deliberate plans to kill children are relatively rare. In those cases usually we see brain dysfunction or mental disorders. A parent may believe a child is purposely crying to make them angry, or that the devil has possessed the child. Domestic violence puts a child at very high risk. When there's a general atmosphere of violence in a home, when you have rage pointed in any direction, you increase the chance that that rage will be manifested in violence against the most susceptible victim.
Government can help. We have the first child death review team in the country. It brings many agencies together to review all cases of children who die under suspicious circumstances. It examines what happened and also gets the family the help it obviously needs. It lets us learn how these things happen so we can get better at preventing them.
We are starting a computerized index in Los Angeles in January. A network like that can alert one social service agency that another agency, or school, or police officer, or hospital emergency room, has had contact with the family and that there seems to be trouble, so preventive services can be offered.
Better prenatal care reduces the chances of a difficult, high-risk baby. Better parenting preparation is crucial. We need to fund family support services and must also have swifter severance of parental rights when it is clear they cannot provide appropriate parenting.