- The Washington Times - Monday, April 30, 2001

Just 22 percent of Virginias population resides in the Hampton Roads area, yet more children die from abuse in this southeastern corner than in any other part of the state.
The area, which includes Chesapeake, Norfolk and Virginia Beach, has held this unwanted distinction for several years and yet cant remedy the problem. This past fiscal year, the area accounted for 47 percent of the states child abuse deaths.
Hoping to prevent more high-profile cases — like the 2-year-old who was beaten to death or the 7-year-old who was forced to live in a doghouse — several universities are studying the matter and Attorney General Mark L. Earley has begun an investigation.
"We know that it is not just a one-year trend," said Mr. Earley, who is gathering a host of agencies and officials to help him, including judges.
Three years ago, the number of abuse-related deaths peaked at 20.
Mr. Earley, a native of the area and a former foster father, said he just recently became aware of the crisis in Hampton Roads and it quickly "got under my skin."
"I have somewhat of a personal interest in this," he said.
During the past fiscal year, the Virginia Department of Social Services determined that 36 children died from abuse, 17 of whom lived in the Hampton Roads area.
"We dont know for sure why thats the case," said Brian Campbell, chairman of a Social Services subcommittee tasked with examining child fatalities. "We have some ideas."
The area is transient, mostly due to a large military population. Children are shuffled into day care and forced to move at a moments notice. Parents forced to leave on tours of duty add to the instability.
Parts of Hampton Roads — particularly Portsmouth and Norfolk — are "intensely urban," Mr. Campbell said, with high foster care case loads. Economic instability in these cities further erodes the family.
Of the 17 fatalities, 15 of those children were 1 year old or younger. In 13 of the cases, a father, stepfather or boyfriend has been accused of the killing. Eight children suffered abuse in the months or years before they died.
The number of non-accidental deaths rose from 11 the previous year.
"Every year we have a higher percentage of deaths than is warranted by our population," Betty Wade Coyle of the Hampton Roads Child Fatality Review Team told the Daily Press, a Hampton Roads newspaper, last month.
"And its very concerning that while other types of homicide are decreasing, child deaths due to abuse and neglect are increasing."
One of the most publicized cases to come out of the area recently was the death of Imani Rodgers. Authorities said the 2-year-old had been sexually assaulted and beaten in Chesapeake last year.
As part of a plea agreement, the childs stepfather, Donte Young, is serving a three-year prison term for the death. Young had been given custody of the little girl shortly before she died, even though he had just been convicted on drug charges.
In another case, the child didnt die but endured two weeks inside a doghouse. The 7-year-old girls father and stepmother, as a form of punishment, would not allow the girl inside even to sleep.
The couple was made to attend a parenting class and pay a $500 fine. The girl now lives with other relatives.
Child welfare advocates denounced the punishments in both cases as too lenient.
The attorney general said he will announce specific details about the investigation in the coming days. He said he will review the most recent cases and focus on early prevention.
Meanwhile, the social work programs at Virginia Commonwealth, Norfolk State and Radford universities will be enlisted to help.
"Weve got to get some intervention early on so these cases dont end in these tragic conclusions," Mr. Earley said.


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