MILWAUKEE — Recent data released this year by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is giving us a look at child maltreatment during the first year of the pandemic, both nationally and here in Wisconsin.
Nationwide, responses and investigations into child abuse declined 10 percent, and it was down about 7 percent here in Wisconsin.
There were also fewer child victims reported, down 13 percent in Wisconsin, 6 percent nationwide.
But fatalities have not decreased at the same rate in Wisconsin. According to the Department of Justice, 31 were reported in 2019, 49 were reported in 2020 and 44 were last year.
However, there was a decrease nationwide with 1,825 child fatalities in 2019 and 1,713 in 2020, according to the Administration of Children and Families.
In the last two years, child deaths have made headlines in our state, like Hank Brown-Rockow, known as Asher to those who knew his father, who died after first responders found him bruised, malnourished and stabbed in a West Allis home.
His cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma, after prolonged abuse, not from the stab wound.
The 6-year-old's mother, Tasha Rockow, faces child abuse charges causing death, and is awaiting trial. She pleaded not guilty to all charges. If convicted she could face life in prison.
There’s also 12-year-old Andre Smith, who was allegedly killed by his grandfather. Andrez Martina told investigators he lost control when he believed the boy stole money from him. A report from the Department of Children and Families shows the family had dozens of interactions with the agency over the years.
Then there is three-year-old Major Harris, who died in October of 2021. Milwaukee police believe he was killed by Jaheem Clark, a man Major’s mom Mallery Muenzenberger had interacted with prior to her death. Investigators believe Clark also killed Muenzenberger.
According to police records, Clark killed himself while police closed in on him in their investigation.
The experts closest to the problem here in Milwaukee say there’s a lot more to the story than just the statistics.
The Sojourner Family Peace Center reports they saw a steep decline in reports of child abuse, on par with the national average. But the center’s CEO Carmen Pitre believes we don’t yet have a clear picture on how the pandemic affected children living in abusive households.
“What we did see at the beginning at the pandemic was a very steep drop of kids being referred for suspicious maltreatment,” Pitre said. “Children who would normally be in school or extracurricular activities around mandatory reporters.”
Milwaukee Police Captain Lucretia Turner is seeing the same trend. There were fewer calls for service for child abuse in 2020 compared to 2021.
“The amount of calls we receive for service has lessened during the pandemic. However, it absolutely does not indicate to us that there’s less children being maltreated,” Turner said.
Turner said the lack of reporting goes beyond spotting physical signs of abuse. Specifically at schools, teachers may notice more subtle signs such as frequent absences. Some of the responsibility now falls on officers on the street.
“There are officers that go to calls for other calls for service and it’s on them to just pay attention to things when it comes to children, that may be in the background of situations,” Turner said.
In the Major Harris case, the person believed to be the killer was not the 3-year-old's biological father.
Pitre did not speak specifically about that case, but said there are vulnerabilities that can be spotted before serious problems arise. One of them being when the abuser is not the child’s biological parent.
“We are better at predicting lethality than we were when I started,” Pitre said. “I started this job 37 years ago. We had no idea, no tools. Now we have more research, we have more tools that we use.”
She says things like a history of domestic violence, kidnapping behavior, drug abuse, and access to weapons are all signs of potential lethality.
But the issue goes beyond homicide cases.
Pitre says because more people were working from home for an extended period of time, the more protective parents spent more time with their children, which helped prevent abuse. She believes it’s something employers should consider when making decisions about flexible work schedules.
Pitre says there needs to be an upstream approach when trying to prevent child abuse, not just reacting to violence currently going on in the home.
“Get comfortable with the topic, educate yourself, talk about it and figure out a safe way to intervene,” Pitre said. “And if it’s not safe, call for help, but definitely let the survivor know you see them, you hear them and you’re going to respect their choices.”
One group trying that approach is the Parenting Network, located on the Northwest side of Milwaukee.
Executive Director Joyce Felker has designed parenting classes to not only help new parents navigate an incredibly stressful time in their lives, but prevent that stress from boiling over into something abusive.
“Get past this myth that if you seek out services there must be something wrong with you,” Felker said. “And the other belief, ‘Oh it’s none of your business, this is my child.’ Parenting is extremely personal and everyone parents differently.”
The majority of her clients have an annual income under $10,000, and half of her clientele are people of color. In fact, there is a large disparity in the number of African American children killed versus white children. According to the ACF study, the rate of African American child fatalities is 3.1 times higher than the rate of white children.
But she makes a very important distinction.
“It isn’t poverty, but the stress that comes with the poverty,” Felker said.
Her classes focus on empowering the parents to develop a plan for their kids. In doing so, it also creates a framework that can help prevent child abuse.
“Because every parent is different,” she said. “Every child is different.”
They also help connect parents with resources to help them meet basic needs. While speaking with the I-Team, Felker showcased a room filled with backpacks that had simple items inside: books, puzzles, games, even a container for snacks.
Usually, it’s those basic needs that are the source of outside stress coming into the home.
“Children don’t come with a manual,” Felker said. “Parenting is hard. You can imagine the level of stress, food insecurity, all things parents have gone through is difficult. We want to be part of a parent’s team so we can walk alongside them in their parenting journey.”
Captain Turner says it’s important for everyone to speak up if you’re seeing child abuse. If you wish you can do so anonymously by contacting MPD Sensitive Crimes at 414-933-4444.
As for the Parenting Network, many of their services are free. Felker says the most you’ll ever pay is a one-time $30 registration fee.