Child Deaths Rise during a Poor Economy; MORE ABUSE Investigators Have Seen More Fatal Abuse Cases Locally as Economy Fails. PREVENTION FIRST Many Cases of Abuse Can Be Avoided with More Education, Experts Say

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Byline: DEIRDRE CONNER

On the heels of recent high-profile child abuse deaths, local investigators say the number of severe abuse cases may be on the rise.

The number of verified cases of child abuse and neglect are actually lower than last year, according to statistics from the Department of Children and Families. But DCF and the Department of Health's medically-oriented Child Protection Team believe that they are seeing more of the most serious cases.

And experts think there will be more to come as the economy leaves families stretched to the breaking point.

"The more you have people unemployed, the more adults you have at home, and it increases the chances" of abuse, said Randell Alexander, a Jacksonville pediatrician and the Child Protection Team's statewide medical director.

The team has evaluated more children that are victims of the most serious cases of abuse. He said similar increases are being reported nationwide.

In March alone, police arrested three Northeast Florida people in connection with child abuse deaths. A fourth man was charged in Georgia in January.

By law, the protection team must evaluate any child who has head or neck injuries, fractures or burns, or any bruised child that is 5 years old or younger. It must also evaluate any child where there is a report of sexual abuse, malnutrition, medical neglect, serious emotional problems or if a sexually transmitted disease is found in a prepubescent child.

In the last year, the team saw marked increase in such cases in Clay, Duval, Nassau and St. Johns counties.

The number of CPT cases where there was abuse or some indication of abuse went up 30 percent from 2007 to 2008, accounting for half of the jump in such cases statewide.

First Coast CPT coordinator Valerie Stanley said the Jacksonville-based team is expecting to see more children come through their doors in the months ahead. The team is on call 24 hours a day every day of the week, she said.

Overall, though, child abuse and neglect appeared to decrease in that same time period. DCF statistics show that the number of verified cases dropped 14 percent in 2008, spokesman John Harrell said. Those figures include serious cases, such as physical injuries, as well as findings of inadequate supervision and other, lesser problems.

EDUCATION AS PREVENTION

Harrell said that investigators have noticed an increase in serious cases.

"We believe typically that when you have economic downturns, the number of abuse cases can go up," he said.

However, it's not always so clear cut: Harrell pointed to a spike in cases in 2006, when the economy was doing fairly well.

The bad economy may explain physical abuse, but not necessarily increases in neglect or sexual abuse, Alexander said. Improved reporting can also up the numbers.

Still, abuse can be prevented, advocates say. With the vast majority of life-threatening abuse happening to very young children and infants, education can be key for new parents.

"One of the things that's just getting the research ... is this notion of coping with crying, that crying is a normal thing," Alexander said.

Often in cases of babies shaken or beaten, parents will later admit they were trying to keep the infant from crying. That's what police say happened on Dec. 20, when Amari Copeland died of blunt force trauma. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said Jonpaul Anthony Harms, 20, struck the 5-week-old boy in the back of the head twice because the infant wouldn't stop crying. …