The kids are all right

From the headlines, you'd think there was an epidemic of child abuse going on. Not just child abuse, but fatal baby and toddler abuse. Every week or two this winter, a new account has shocked readers from the pages of the daily papers.

The Star Tribune headlines feel appalling and yet almost monotonous: "Police investigating death of 5-week-old" (March 21) "Police investigating baby's death in St. Paul" (March 6) "Baby Dies From Injuries; Dad Arrested" (February 14

Then there are the old court cases—grievous wrongs that are only now coming through the system: "Mom Admits Letting Boyfriend on Drugs Care for Son Who Died" (March 6) "Mother sentenced in toddler's suffocation" (January 27)

Throw in the Mankato parents charged with battering a once-conjoined twin—an headline-grabber if ever there were one—and you'd be forgiven for wondering if it's open season on little children.

The statistics, however, tell their own callous story. There were 12 child-abuse deaths in Minnesota last year. A third of the way through 2007, there have been three reported deaths—about normal. (Over the last five years, child abuse deaths peaked at 16 in 2004, and bottomed out at 7 in 2005.)

A question about the exceptionalism of the recent flurry of crime elicits an audible sigh from Connie Skillingstad, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota. "I don't know," she says, before adding, "I don't think it's ever normal that this stuff happens."

Skillingstad attributes the latest wave of incidents to some of the same factors that drive a lot of child abuse. "Women mak[e] choices to trust men with their children and those men don't know how to parent unless it's their birthchild, or they were there early and bonded with the child. With a crying baby—a child who can't be comforted—they’re not going to have the patience and the capacity to be compassionate.

Skilingstad underlines the fact that substantiated incidents of child abuse in Minnesota haven't changed much over time: There are roughly 8,000 cases a year. Yet she maintains that the media underplay the ability to prevent abuse through social spending. A sick child—and uninsured children get sick and stay sick—is a crying child. And though she's heard her share of outrage over the latest infant deaths, she argues that in tough circumstances, almost anyone is capable of awful acts against children.

"It's complicated," she says. "I would think these guys don't really want to hurt a baby in their better moments. They've had all they can handle and they snap."