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Under 4 set at highest risk for fatal abuse

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By Sarah Bennett

While the entire Elizabethtown Police Department’s detective division spent 14 hours at Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville on Feb. 26, two infants battled for their lives in the intensive care unit.

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One baby survived. The other, Aleyah Noelle Williams, died from her injuries, and her father, Barry Wayne Williams Jr., was indicted Thursday for murder.

The cases were reported to police within six hours of each other and the infants had a combined age of 9 months.

“Never have I experienced nor has anybody else around here experienced such young children like that, you know, in such a short time period,” Detective Sgt. Brian Graham said.

The Elizabethtown infants were two of four child abuse victims treated in a 24-hour period at Kosair’s ICU, according to hospital officials. Dr. Stephen Wright, medical director at the children’s hospital, said all of the victim’s ages could be expressed in months, not years.

Since Jan. 8, police in Hardin County have investigated four cases of reported child abuse that resulted in serious injuries. Three of the victims were infants. One was 18 months old.

Of those cases, two were fatal.

Five parents and the boyfriend of a mother have been arrested on charges ranging from first-degree wanton endangerment to murder. All are younger than 25.

According to officials, though abusers cross race, gender, age and socioeconomic boundaries, young parents, especially those involved in domestic violence or the use of drugs, are at a higher risk of becoming abusers than other parents.

Joel Griffith, director of services and programs for Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky, said parents younger than 25 tend to be inexperienced, isolated and financially limited.

According to the Cabinet for Health and Family Services Child Abuse and Neglect Annual Report of Fatalities and Near Fatalities, 77 percent of female perpetrators in 214 fatal abuse cases reported between state fiscal years 2008 and 2012 were younger than 30.

Dr. Melissa Currie, a child abuse pediatrician based in Louisville, said young parents can be unprepared to handle the pressure of a crying baby.

“We oftentimes assume the parents have the skills to cope with a crying baby when we really should be teaching that explicitly,” she said.

Although Griffith said four cases in two months is a lot for a rural county, he added it is impossible to draw strong trends from that number.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Teresa Logsdon said she does not believe these four cases are related to a lack of parenting education.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever seen anything of that magnitude back to back,” said Logsdon, who spent more than 10 years working as an attorney in Hardin Family Court. “But I’m hard pressed, knowing what I know, to put a whole lot on it just being young parents or immature parents.

“The cases that are pending are just acts of selfishness,” she said. “We’re not talking about accidents that happened.”

Though the risk to become an abuser is ageless, officials agreed children 4 and younger are the most vulnerable to physical abuse.

According to the CHFS annual report, more than 90 percent of victims in all cases of fatal or near fatal physical abuse in Kentucky are younger than 4. Griffith said that statistic is consistent with what is reported nationally.

Children at that age are at the highest risk for head trauma and fatal injuries because of their anatomy, Currie explained. Not only is the child’s brain softer, but there is more room between the brain and skull, she said.

“They also have a bigger head in comparison to their body, which makes it even harder for them to resist the forces of being shaken,” Currie said.

In a citation and statements released to media, Elizabethtown Police revealed Aleyah suffered “shaken baby syndrome” and Williams reportedly admitted to shaking his 6-month-old daughter.

According to medical officials, the anatomical structure of a baby’s brain causes the organ to repeatedly strike against the skull when shaken and allows for it to gain momentum as it moves.

Ultimately the baby’s brain “distorts” and “stretches,” Currie said, resulting in internal bleeding and tissue damage.

Officials stress parenting is frustrating at any age and those who are overwhelmed should seek help.

Any parent who has a young child should have a list of family and friends he or she can call for help when something happens, Currie said, and that includes becoming overwhelmed or frustrated.

Prevent Child Abuse Kentucky offers a hotline, 1-800-CHILDREN, for stressed or overwhelmed parents who need support or encouragement, Griffith said. Volunteers who answer the line also can provide information about parenting resources available in local communities, he said.

Among resources available locally is Clarity Solutions for Women, a Christian-based organization in Elizabethtown offering services to women facing unexpected pregnancies.

Clarity, which is open to pregnant mothers until their child is 1 year old, offers parenting education classes, motherhood support groups and counseling. Classes cover topics such as shaken baby syndrome, safety in the home, discipline and caring for newborns.

Clarity staff said parents are encouraged to seek help and be honest about their stress or frustration.

“Every mom struggles,” said Lynn Atkisson, nurse manager at Clarity. “It doesn’t matter how old you are or what stage of life you’re in.”

Teen parents who also are students in Hardin County Schools are eligible to participate in the ExCEL Program at John Hardin High School if they are willing to transfer and space is available in the class.

Director Pat Bohannon said topics in the program range from playing with the child to child abuse, which particularly is addressed during April when organizations raise awareness about child abuse and prevention.

A former social worker who has spent more than 20 years working with teens, Bohannon is adamant age does not determine the quality of a parent, and she’s met mothers as young as 14 years old who were good parents.

“I always tell my students, ‘It’s not your age; it’s attitude,” she said. “Attitude is important if you’re a 15-year-old parent or a 50-year-old parent.”

Sarah Bennettcan be reached at (270) 505-1750 or sbennett@thenewsenterprise.com.