The headline in a Portland, Maine, newspaper read, “Standish man sentenced to serve 15 years in prison for death of his 3-month-old son” (Edward Murphy, May 23, 2017). I suspect that many of the folks who read the story under the headline feel that the sentence was too light. Others are asking themselves how a 21-year-old man could beat a fragile 5-pound infant to death. What kind of evil monster is this guy?
However, even with the snatches of information provided in the 500-word newspaper story , the unfortunate scenario makes sense, and the child’s death is a tragic culmination of a series of events that shouldn’t surprise any pediatrician. It turns out the infant was a twin who, with his sister, had been born at 30 weeks’ gestation. He had spent a month or more in the hospital, and his sister was still in neonatal ICU at the time of his death. While it is unclear from the newspaper article whether the twins’ parents were married, they were living in a house with eight other adults and some other children. The mother was out of the home working while the father was left to care for his son.
The newspaper article outlined that the father had a troubled childhood. According to his lawyer, as a child, the father and his siblings had been locked in their bedroom by their mother while she watched television. He and a younger brother were relinquished to the care of the state when he was 9 years old. He then bounced between nine foster homes until he was 18. Also, the fact that the surviving twin has been adopted by her grandparents suggests that their mother had her own struggles with parenting.
I am sure that the neonatologists and social workers at the hospital where the twins were born were aware of at least some of the red flags that waved over this unfortunate family. I also am confident that they did what they could to assure this infant a safe home environment when it was time for his discharge from the NICU. However, risks factors may have been missed that now seem obvious in retrospect. We should all realize by now from our experience with domestic terrorism that simply appearing on someone’s radar doesn’t mean that preemptive action can or will be taken. Short of keeping the parents of high-risk neonates under constant surveillance for a year or 2, there are few other workable options to prevent every tragedy like this one.
This case is another example of the erosive power of a baby’s cry. Most pediatricians have developed a filtering mechanism that allows us to function in a cacophonous environment dominated by a screaming infant. However, even adults without this young father’s deprived background crack under the stress when they are confined in a space with a crying child. The risk of decompensation is compounded when the adult also feels some responsibility for the child’s welfare. I don’t think we can condone what the father did in this tragic scenario, but we can certainly understand how the dominoes fell.
We are all potential child abusers. When faced with the right, or I guess the wrong, set of circumstances we might lash out to stop the crying. Luckily, most of us are several body lengths from the end of that rope.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.