Child abuse is on the rise, the journal Pediatrics tells us this week. Hospitalizations for serious injury to children at the hands of adults -- fractures, brain trauma -- increased 5 percent between 1997 and 2009, while hospitalizations of the youngest and most vulnerable, those less than a year old, increased at twice that rate.
How could anyone hurt a baby?
You know how they can.
When the crying goes on so long that you will do anything to make it stop. When you are too young to have had this baby, and too alone to handle the responsibility. When the stress of life breaks you so that you literally break someone else. When you need help with demons of alcohol, or drugs, or mental illness, and there is no help to be found. When there isn't enough money to meet the needs of yet one more.
My older son had colic. He cried endlessly and I cried along with him. Exhausted does not begin to describe how I felt, and late one night -- or was it early one morning -- he wailed for hours while I tried absolutely everything to get him to sleep. I sang, I rocked, I paced, I begged. Then there was a moment when I started to shake him. I started, but I didn't finish. Instead I put him in his crib and walked away.
I stopped because I had a college education and I knew the damage one shake could do to a newborn brain. Because I had a husband asleep down the hall who I could wake and tell I couldn't take it anymore. Because I had the money to hire someone to stay with my baby during the day so I could take a nap. Because I was not in the grip of addiction, as so many abusers are. Because I had the insurance to ask my doctor for help with what I had come to see was more than just postpartum blues, which many abusers do not.
The Pediatrics report doesn't speculate about the reason for this 10.9 percent jump in hospitalization for the youngest victims. It focuses instead on the fact that when you measure abuse by hospital records the numbers are higher than when you measure by cases reported by social workers.
Still, we can guess some of the reasons. Those social workers are a place to start as their caseloads have increased while staffing has decreased. Economic stress is another known trigger, along with addiction and mental illness. All those have jumped in recent years, as the economy has faltered and resources for health care have declined.
10.9 percent. It's a number buried in a study, but one that translates into 3.3 million reported cases a year. A number that hints at the black mix of rage, desperation and despair I felt, and the fine line between me and danger. A number that measures what any of us could do, if not for buffers so many of us don't have.
As Dr. James Anderst, chief of the section on child abuse and neglect at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Kansas City, Mo., told NBC News, we can reverse this number "the same way we get people to quit smoking. It is the same way we get people to wear seat belts. It is a combination of laws, and enforcement of those laws and also supporting people so they can be better parents."
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