By Miles Maguire
When officers arrested a 34-year-old Oshkosh man Dec. 17 in connection with the death of a third young child in less than two weeks, the police department issued a statement in an apparent attempt to calm concerns about this shocking string of tragedies.
“None of the recent deaths of children in Oshkosh are connected in any way,” the police said in a press release.
But child advocates and health officials know better.
The police may be right from a purely criminal perspective, but the social and economic predictors of childhood trauma in Oshkosh are readily apparent to those who are looking. Unfortunately, these predictors--especially low income and lack of education--are also reflected in actual statistics on child abuse in the community.
According to the most recent state data, Winnebago County’s Child Welfare Division received 1,366 reports of child abuse and neglect in calendar year 2016. This number translates into a rate of 38.8 reports per 1,000 children, compared to a statewide rate of 33.1.
In the Fox Valley, defined in a recent study as communities in Winnebago, Outagamie and Calumet counties, Oshkosh stands out when it comes to child welfare indicators. Almost half of the children in the city live in single-parent households, 8.1 percent of all residents lack health insurance and more than one-fifth of the population earns only between $10,000 and $25,000 a year.
“Rates of certain preventable childhood injuries related to emergency department visits are higher in the Fox Valley than in the state,” according to the authors of the study, a group called the Fox Valley Early Childhood Coalition. This category included falls and “blunt injuries” resulting from getting hit “by or against an object or person.”
The 2016 study went so far as to identify high-risk census tracts in the major population centers of the Fox Valley. Two of these tracts in Oshkosh, one north of the Fox River and one south, were the sites of recent infant deaths that have resulted in murder charges against male residents of the homes where the children died.
On Dec. 14 a 27-year-old man who lived on West 8th Avenue was accused of homicide after his 7-week-old son had been pronounced dead at Mercy Medical Center on Nov. 29. According to the criminal complaint, the father of the dead child had been decorating the family Christmas tree when the infant began to fuss. Eventually, police said, the man told them that over the course of the evening he had shaken the boy “between five and six times, pulling him up, jerking his head, letting his head snap back.”
The family lives in a census tract where 15 percent of the adult population has no high school diploma, a factor that has “a significant impact on child health outcomes,” according to the Fox Valley study.
Another risk factor is low income, and at least 15 percent of households live below the federal poverty level in eight Oshkosh census tracts. One of these tracts takes in the 800 block of Grove Street, where on Dec. 9 police responded to a report of a “pulseless and nonbreathing 10-month-old child.”
The boy had been living there with his mother and a 34-year-old male tenant, who had warned the woman that she would need to move out. The man told police that he had been “frustrated and annoyed” by the woman and her son, according to the criminal complaint. The two “were making a lot of noise early in the kitchen after he had been drinking the night before and had come home intoxicated,” the complaint said.
The man was charged Dec. 18 with first-degree reckless homicide. According to the criminal complaint, an autopsy showed that the baby suffered “such a severe injury to the head that his brain swelled to the point that it fractured the skull between the plates.”
The third child death, which involved a three-year-old female, occurred on Sanders Street outside one of these troubled census tracts. No criminal charges have been filed in this case, and police said they are awaiting results from an autopsy report that may be weeks away.
The three deaths have left local officials wondering how to respond. “This is a concern that we should all share,” said City Manager Mark Rohloff. “The string of them back to back to back is disturbing to everyone.”
He said the question is “what can we do as a community: How do we address these complex social issues?”
Because of the way local government is structured, the city has limited capacity for dealing with such incidents. What’s mostly available are first responders--law enforcement and emergency medical services. But “that’s really not the issue,” Rohloff said. “The issue is how do you prevent these tragedies.”
It’s at the county level where local government has agencies charged with health and human service problems.
“We have resources to address these issues,” said Doug Gieryn, director of the Winnebago County Health Department. “We just have to find common ground and alignment and agreement” or how to proceed.
“With the two deaths that appear to be more intentional, it’s really a big reminder for us we need to pay more attention to mental health,” Gieryn added. “We need to reduce the stigma of people who are experiencing mental health issues. We need to encourage them to seek help the way they would for any other physical ailment.”
To get to the root causes of parental dysfunction, county health officials believe that it is important to look at what are called “ACEs”: Adverse Childhood Experiences. “ACEs are potentially traumatic events occurring in childhood that have an enduring, negative impact on adult health and well-being,” according to the 2016 Fox Valley report.
These experiences can include various kinds of emotional or physical abuse as well as a family breakup due to death, divorce or imprisonment, the study said. Researchers have found that children who have four or more of such events in their lives face a greater risk of various physical and mental health conditions, ranging from hepatitis to depression, and a greater likelihood of engaging in behaviors such as missing work, attempting suicide and abusing alcohol.
Unfortunately 17 percent of Winnebago County adults reported four or more ACEs, nearly twice the rate in Outagamie County and 20 percent higher than the statewide rate, according to a state survey cited in the report.
“How do we do a better job of supporting parents, of supporting kids that have experienced these traumatic events, so that they don’t carry them into adulthood?” Gieryn asked.
For newborns “a really great thing would be universal screening done at the hospital,” said Cindy Draws, a public health nurse supervisor for the county. If warning signs of stress were detected in the parents or the household, then a referral could be made for follow-up by service providers.
Some referrals are currently made, but “hospital stays are very brief, and [staffers] often don’t know or pick up on those concerns,” Draws said. Even with universal screening, other issues would likely emerge, such as whether service agencies have the capacity to monitor situations or even whether new parents would be open to offers of assistance.
Both of the men charged with homicide have had multiple run-ins with the law, according to court records. One of them, according to the criminal complaint, had been smoking marijuana the day of the child’s death.
Under those circumstances, it is questionable whether social service providers could even gain access to households where children are at risk.
“What we see is that those individuals who are most in need of assistance won’t let us in the door [or] don’t respond to our attempts to reach them,” Draws said.
While officials are aware of the limits in providing care to newborns and new parents, it’s not clear where the biggest problem is. “Where is the gap?” Draws asked. “Is it in identifying those individuals or in the actual referral process, or is it that they are refusing that assistance?”
“Unfortunately there are no quick answers,” Gieryn said. But “we have a community that is rich with resources and that cares.”
He said something good can come from this cluster of child deaths depending on how the community responds. “Sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right people and finding the right pieces and trying to drive those new priorities to assure we are shining a light on areas where resources are needed or limited.”
Over the 10-year period ending in 2017, Winnebago County saw a total of 177 child deaths, based on a review of death certificates, Draws said. This figure works out to an average of almost 18 per year. Last year the county’s Child Death Review Team looked into 11 fatalities.
“I do think Oshkosh and Winnebago County are good, safe family communities,” Gieryn said. “It’s very, very tragic and unfortunate that these events occurred.”
But he also believes this recent cluster of child deaths “is an opportunity to raise some awareness about the needs for services” across a range of dimensions, including education, jobs, housing and transportation, that contribute to health and well-being.
“Those are very complex issues that require a lot of partners to come together,” he said.