In the weeks before 3-month-old Kristine Cowger died from severe head and neck trauma, nurses at a Lafayette clinic visited her parents' apartment to teach them how to care for a newborn.
One point they emphasized: Never shake a baby, said Tippecanoe County deputy prosecutor Laura Zeman, who is handling a felony fatal neglect case against the girl's father, Robert Cowger, 18.
"And still, it happened," Zeman said. "I'm seeing a lot of very young fathers who are just not prepared for how hard it is to take care of a newborn. ... But I don't remember ever in my career having this many so close together."
Kristine's death on Feb. 8 was one of about a dozen child abuse and neglect cases in Greater Lafayette that has occurred or has gone before a court in the past two months. Several of those incidents involve allegations against parents -- strikingly fathers -- who are in their mid-20s and younger.
Child advocates note that the number of cases declaring children as wards of the court in Tippecanoe County appears to have dropped or held steady so far this year. But the severity of abuse and neglect seems to have worsened, they say.
And the number of confirmed abuse and neglect victims is rising faster than the child population, according to the Indiana Department of Child Services.
Last year in Tippecanoe County, there were 576 confirmed cases of sexual or physical abuse or neglect, or 17.5 victims per 1,000 residents under age 18. In 2005, there were 513 confirmed cases, or 16.1 victims per 1,000 children.
Among the cases recently heard by juvenile court Judge Loretta Rush:
A child so severely beaten that blood pooled around her eyes.
A young girl whose father is accused of holding her arm under hot running water for so long that the child's skin blistered.
A father who allowed his children to live in an apartment littered with feces, rotten food and trash.
Just this past week, child advocates were scrambling to schedule a hair test for a boy, born on March 8 at Home Hospital, whose mother admitted to smoking marijuana two to three times a week during the length of her pregnancy. The woman tested positive for opiates in her system, a Department of Child Services investigator testified.
"A tremendous amount of physical abuse has been against children who are under 5," Rush said. "Why is this happening now? I don't know why."
Aiyana case anniversary
This weekend marks the three-year anniversary of the death of 4-year-old Aiyana Gauvin, a Lafayette girl whose horrific story of abuse cast a spotlight on child abuse and neglect in the community. Her death also helped lead to statewide changes in the child welfare system.
Raised awareness could have something to do with the increased number of victims. Since Aiyana's death, the number of reported abuse and neglect cases has shot up 62 percent, from 1,767 in 2005 to 2,872 in 2007, according to a draft report from the Indiana Department of Child Service. Of those 2007 cases, 576, or 20 percent, were substantiated.
At the Tippecanoe County branch of the Indiana Department of Child Services, staffing has tripled -- from 13 family case managers and two supervisors in 2005 to 40 case managers and six supervisors now, said executive director Angela Smith Grossman.
Both she and Rush point out that Child in Need of Services, or CHINS, cases went down in 2007 compared to 2006. That has only happened once during Rush's 10 years on the bench.
CHINS cases are filed in Rush's court after caseworkers have tried to work with parents or guardians and determined that a judge's intervention is necessary to protect the child's safety.
"Reporting has been good," Smith Grossman said. "People know their obligation to report suspected abuse and fulfill that obligation."
Since Aiyana's death, hundreds of residents have attended three annual summits aimed at curbing child abuse and neglect in Tippecanoe County. Many educators, law enforcement officers and social service workers have received training in the Search Institute's 40 Developmental Assets for Children program, designed to address what children need to survive and thrive.
Yet despite these efforts, the recent string of child abuse cases has child advocates wondering if it's enough.
Rush says resources for parents are plentiful.
"My hope is that young parents are using the resources we have in the community to help them," she said. "It's hard sometimes hearing these cases and seeing the photos. You have to take a moment to collect yourself."
Help for new parents
Robbin Lamblin is the coordinator of Healthy Families, a free voluntary support program through Family Services in Lafayette for the parents of all newborns at Home Hospital. Called Baby Talk, representatives visit with parents after a child's birth.
Family Services offers an assessment and does home visits weekly for the baby's first year, biweekly the second year and then monthly until the child turns 3. That can be adjusted depending on the needs of each family, Lamblin said.
"We tell them that it's OK to feel overstressed, to take a breather, to ask for help from somebody," she said. "We teach them how to cope when babies are crying. We let them know that all parents get frustrated sometimes."
Parents also learn about the dangers of shaking an infant.
Lamblin said that they have had parents shake a small container holding egg yolks or Jell-O -- meant to represent a baby's fragile brain -- to see the damage that can occur.
Susan Smith, president and chief operating officer of Family Services, said the agency and other community organizations are working to establish Warmline, a telephone help line for parents.
The plan is to offer the service through Lafayette Crisis Center by calling 211, the national abbreviated dialing code for information and referral. Warmline currently is being considered by the Crisis Center's board of directors.
"Part of the Baby Talk model of supporting new parents is providing a listening ear," Smith said. With Warmline, a parent who felt stressed, frustrated or overwhelmed would be able to call 211. Operators would listen, then offer advice on what to do or where to get further help.
"They'll be able to cover anything that, in some of these recent abuse cases, might have driven parents to the point of frustration that it triggered violence."
A newsletter called "Growing Child" is distributed in dozens of doctors office and social service organizations in the Lafayette area, Smith said.
'Time to grow up'
One of Rush's goals in her court is to help parents better themselves so that they can be reunited with their children.
For example, this past week an emergency hearing was called to determine where to place a 4-year-old boy whose mother checked herself into a center for mental health treatment. He currently is in foster care.
The Department of Child Services has substantiated parental neglect three times because of lack of supervision by the mother. Allegations of molestation by the mother's boyfriend have been raised.
The boy's birth father, Billy Ray Burkhardt, 46, appeared before Rush for possible custody.
"She has called before saying she can't handle him," he told the judge. ". ... I'd love to have him."
But Burkhardt has his share of problems, including a history of alcohol-related arrests and an arrest in February on suspicion of battery. Rush ordered that he stop using marijuana.
"You may have to change how you live your life," she said. "It's time to grow up."
Cycle of abuse
Ken Weller, executive director of Legal Aid Corp. of Tippecanoe County, has represented parents in dozens of CHINS proceedings. Many times, a parenting problem can stem from the type of childhood that parent had.
"It is not uncommon for me to be representing the children and grandchildren of clients that I represented in the 1980s," Weller said. "Many parents have substance-abuse problems or mental health problems -- sometimes both.
"Typical clients that we represent are undereducated, underemployed, underhoused and under-represented legally."
For Tippecanoe County's Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASAs, the recent string of child abuse and neglect allegations -- some of them involving groups of siblings -- has required volunteers to take on more cases.
In 2007, there were 126 CASA volunteers who assisted 517 children by serving as the kids' voices in court.
Executive director Coleen Hamrick said the organization "had a lull for a little bit, but it didn't last very long."
Volunteers also have noticed that the children involved have been getting younger.
"If you look nationwide, abuse and neglect affects a lot of children under the age of 5," Hamrick said. "You see a higher rate of abuse, likely because children in that age group can't protect themselves.
"With having so many younger parents involved lately, you can't help but wonder if they have had a previous history of their own in the child welfare system."