Study: Infant abuse high in Alaska

14 died from abuse between 1994 and 2000

Posted: Friday, December 03, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Alaska infants are being physically abused at disproportionately high rates, according to a study presented this week in Anchorage.

There are few published studies of infant abuse, but those in Pennsylvania, Scotland and Colorado found much lower rates, said Brad Gessner, one of the lead researchers and a pediatrician and epidemiologist with the state Division of Public Health.

According to the report presented at the Alaska Health Summit, some infants under age 1 suffered skull fractures or broken legs or arms, and 14 died from abuse during the study period of 1994 through 2000. Researchers found 325 cases of documented physical abuse of infants during the seven years, or an average of 46 a year.

State health and child-protection officials conducted the study, published in the international journal Child Abuse & Neglect in January.

Cases were included in the study if the Division of Family and Youth Services substantiated physical abuse, or doctors found intentional injury, or the baby's death was labeled a homicide. The division has since become the Office of Children's Services.

Researchers looked for characteristics of families in which babies are abused.

"The picture that emerges is that of an infant - often fragile or requiring additional care - born to parents without the skills and support systems necessary to protect their child from harm," the study said.

Infants four months and younger were the most likely victims, Gessner told audience members at the health summit.

His theory is that it's "the most stressful time." A new baby may not sleep well and may cry a lot. Parents may be sleep deprived. The parent may "just be mad at it all the time," Gessner said.

Babies are at far greater risk of being abused if their parents are less educated, either dropping out of high school or not going beyond it, the study found. Severe cases of abuse, for instance, were three times more likely to occur with less educated parents.

When parents were unmarried, babies were at greater risk, as were those whose mothers drank or smoked during pregnancy.

Eighty-three percent of the 72 infants hospitalized or killed had no interaction with the child-protection agency before they were hurt. Authorities may have had some warnings, however. A sampling of case records showed that infant abuse often occurred in homes where there was domestic violence against the mother and physical and sexual abuse against other children.

The findings should guide professionals on when and how to intervene, the study said. They may help reshape Healthy Families Alaska, a program that aims to prevent child abuse and neglect.

The program, which relies on workers who visit new parents in their homes, should consider risk factors such as the parents' education in targeting families and should make sure both parents get help, the study recommended. Gessner is working with Healthy Families on further evaluation.

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