After all, it had been a bad day for the stay-at-home mother who was also caring for a 4-year-old and an infant, none of whom received regular physical discipline. The two older children had just been placed in “time out” over another incident when the mother found the 2-year-old squirting toothpaste all into the carpet. So, the mother picked up the child and spanked her.
Then she noticed she was crying more fervently than before. A trip to the emergency room revealed the child’s arm had been fractured as her mother jerked her up. Investigators, including Loveless, who is a forensic investigator for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, were called in.
“I can’t say that I would have handled it any differently,” Loveless told a crowd gathered to hear her speak at Dalton State College for a seminar the Criminal Justice Society presented on child abuse investigation and autopsy procedures. “She didn’t mean to (fracture the child’s arm).”
Yet Loveless’ job is only to determine whether abuse occurred and should be reported as such, not whether the perpetrator actually intended to cause a certain level of harm. Those considerations are for law enforcement, the Department of Family and Children Services and others to investigate, she said.
Loveless said she investigates close to 500 death cases every year of children under 17 years old and investigates many more cases of suspected abuse of living children. About 12 child abuse death cases come to her Decatur office each year, and the office sees cases from all over the state except the Atlanta metro area.
Sometimes, the cases are similar to the 25-year-old mother who didn’t intend to inflict harm on the child, but got too frustrated and snapped. Sometimes, the perpetrator does intend to harm the child, but inflicts a greater injury than intended. Then, there are some perpetrators who are just plain mean and do intend every bit of the hurt they inflict, she said.
Loveless showed photos of children who had suffered severe burns from hair dryers, irons, running water and hot bath water. Others had been punched, stepped on or beaten to the point of bleeding or internal injury with belts, switches, extension cords or exercise equipment.
Several criminal justice students attended Loveless’ lecture, which focused heavily on understanding the signs of abuse and being able to discern inflicted injuries from accidents, birth defects or various diseases that appear similar to burns, bruises or other wounds.
Andrew Mailman, a senior criminal justice major at Dalton State, said the presentation was the first time he’d seen a “visual representation” of what child abuse looks like as well as what things that mimic abuse look like.
Iman Mohamed, a junior criminal justice major, said she was surprised at some of the information, such as the fact that Mongolian spots (a kind of birthmark) in dark-skinned children can appear very similar to bruises.
“I would have never guessed,” she said.
Some abuse is difficult to detect, but other abuse is obvious even to the relatively untrained eye. Take, for example, the 17-year-old baby sitter who in 2005 was asked to watch a set of twins, both less than a year old. She knew it wasn’t normal for the non-mobile babies to have bruises on their faces, and for their mother not to even provide her with food and diapers for the time she would be out.
At the hospital, the babies were found to have severe diaper rash, were severely underweight and had multiple bruises on their bodies. When their mother came in the room to see them, they “froze” and literally held their breath, she said.
Loveless said she’s seen cases where abuse signs were present but never reported before the child was eventually killed. She warned those going into career fields that deal with child abuse to take their work seriously.
“Remember what is at stake,” she said. “Trust your gut, and think about what is at stake ... You have to be willing to fight for that kid, because nobody else might.”
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