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Babies, boyfriends and bad tempers: A deadly mix

TAMPA - A year ago this month, Michael Reid was watching TV when his 17-year-old girlfriend's infant son began to cry. Home alone with the baby, Reid, 27, told authorities he removed the 6-month-old from his crib and tried to comfort him, but nothing seemed to work. He grabbed the baby around the waist and shook him back and forth before dropping him onto a pillow. The baby stopped crying, but only for a few seconds. Frustrated, Reid picked him up again and walked outside, thrusting the tiny face into his shoulder while bouncing the boy up and down. When Reid went back into the house, he covered the baby's mouth. But nothing could quell the crying. So Reid head-butted the infant with so much force, he told Polk County sheriff's deputies, that his head hurt, too.
Finally, the baby fell asleep. Miraculously, he survived. His eyes were bloodshot and swollen, his nose likely broken. When his mother returned home, she rushed him to the hospital, where doctors confirmed he had been abused. Reid denied it. Eleven months later, out on bail and awaiting trial on child abuse charges, Reid again would be entrusted with the care of a girlfriend's infant son. This time, the baby, 4-month-old Jeremiah Shaneyfelt of Kissimmee, died. Boyfriends killing their girlfriends' children has become so prevalent, a state committee and at least one child welfare advocate are tracking such deaths locally. They hope to use their findings to better educate caseworkers and the public and ultimately keep children alive. In the past six years, mothers' boyfriends were accused in the deaths of 13 children in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. The most recent - that of little Emanuel Wesley Murray, thrown from a car on Interstate 275 in Tampa - especially horrified the public. But the cases have a lot in common. The men typically are 18 and 30, unemployed with little education and saddled with criminal records that include substance abuse or domestic violence. Often, they are the caregivers for children whose mothers work or go to school. They have no emotional connection to the child and usually don't know how to soothe a crying baby or understand why it's dangerous to shake an infant. And they almost always lie at first about how a child was injured. "This is really such a troubling area," said Manatee County sheriff's Maj. Connie Shingledecker, chairwoman of the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee. The group publishes an annual report that helps lawmakers and child advocates identify preventable deaths. In 2008, members reviewed 163 deaths that occurred in 2007. Of the 241 perpetrators, 119 were the mother; 54, the father; 19, a grandparent; and 13, a boyfriend. The majority of the children were white infant boys. Forty-five died of physical abuse with more than half of them suffering head injuries. Most had never been involved with state supervision before their deaths. Moms were responsible for the majority of neglect fatalities, such as drowning, but the committee also found mothers failed to protect their children from male abusers. "Many mothers were aware of the abuse occurring yet left their child in the care of the abuser," the committee wrote. Crying among common abuse triggers "There continues to be an alarming number of infant and toddler homicides that are attributed to common triggers and risk factors for physical abuse," members wrote. "Crying, toilet training and feeding are the most common triggers." There's a need, advocates say, for more public education and increased services for single moms, who often feel they have no choice but to leave their children with a boyfriend - usually a fairly new one. In the recent case of Jeremiah Shaneyfelt, his 25-year-old mother had dated Reid only a few months when she went to work at Publix and left him to babysit her son, her grandfather said. Dale Shaneyfelt, a 74-year-old retired mechanic, remembers that day. It was the last time he saw his first great-grandchild alive. "I was so proud of him," Shaneyfelt said. "That baby was so smart." He left the trailer he and his wife shared with Jeremiah and his mom, and told Reid: "Now take care of my little man." A few hours later on April 3, his granddaughter called frantic and told him Jeremiah was in the hospital. Doctors said the infant had severe head trauma. He died the next day. Overall nationally, biological fathers still account for the majority of child abuse deaths - about 31 percent, said Don Dixon, chief operating officer for The Children's Board of Hillsborough County. But with 26 percent of such deaths attributed to mothers' boyfriends, they are "particularly lethal." A 24-year veteran of the Department of Children & Families, Dixon has begun researching the topic for his doctorate in social work at the University of South Florida. He hopes to publish his findings and use them to better train caseworkers to spot warning signs and intervene before a child is hurt or killed. 'Window of opportunity' "Most deaths don't occur on the first abuse incident," Dixon said. "So we have a window of opportunity." That's when a caseworker can swoop in and refer moms to shelters or other services. Background checks can be done on boyfriends. If there are problems, children can be removed as a last resort. That did not happen in the case of 3-month-old Emanuel Murray, whose 17-year-old mother declined to go to a shelter. But caseworkers persuaded her to file for a restraining order and an injunction against her ex-boyfriend, Richard McTear Jr. The baby died before authorities served McTear with a subpoena for the injunction hearing. Hillsborough Kids Inc., a private agency that provides local foster care oversight for DCF, formed a task force last year with the Family Justice Center to train workers on indentifying dangerous behaviors such as domestic violence tendencies. DCF Secretary George Sheldon also wants to add mental health issues to that training, but he admitted it's not enough to refer women to domestic violence shelters and mental health facilities. He plans to call for more stringent background checks for anyone visiting the home of a child or family being supervised by the state. He also would like to see a public service announcement campaign reminding residents of their obligations. "You can't live two doors down" and not report violence, Sheldon said. "You've got to say, 'This is my responsibility, too.'" But if most of the children who die have not had contact with DCF, lawmakers must look at implementing programs for women in the open market, Dixon said. "Maybe a policy change in this state to offer child care to mothers who use boyfriends as babysitters," he said. "Something that would cost little to nothing for them." That's a tough item to drum up money for in such a tight economy, Dixon acknowledged. But someone in Tallahassee needs to decide: "Do we value these kids enough to value at least a share of the costs? "Something as simple as that as an intervention could possibly save hundreds of lives." VIOLENT BOYFRIENDS May 5 - Richard Anthony McTear Jr., 21, of Tampa, is accused of throwing his girlfriend's 3-month-old son from a car window while traveling southbound on Interstate 275. McTear is jailed on charges of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse, kidnapping, felony battery and burglary with battery. April 28 - In Tampa, Angel Robles, 25, is accused of killing his live-in girlfriend's 11-month-old son, Isiah Ian McGuire. Robles is charged with first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse and sexual battery on the child. Examiners determined Isiah died from multiple internal injuries and trauma to the head. April 23 - Police say Alfredo Hudson, 21, confessed that he violently shook his girlfriend's 9-month-old daughter, Naomi Petit-Homme, at their Bradenton home. Hudson is charged with first-degree murder. April 7 - Michael Joseph Reid, 27, a Polk County man, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend's 4-month-old son in Osceola County. In May 2008, Reid was arrested on child abuse charges involving injuries to a different girlfriend's 6-month-old son in Lake Wales. Investigators said the baby was shaken and head-butted. Reid is free on bail awaiting trial in the Polk case. March 8 - Kenneth Lopez, 21, allegedly beats to death his live-in girlfriend's 2-year-old daughter, Gabrielle Randel, because she would not stop crying in their Tampa home. When Gabrielle didn't go to sleep easily, Lopez allegedly picked her up, wrapped her in a towel and began beating her. Lopez is charged with first-degree murder. Sept. 5, 2008 - Robert Bradwell, 36, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend's 2-year-old daughter, Makaila Thompson, at their Tampa apartment. Bradwell claimed the child fell into the bathtub while he was outside drinking beer and smoking marijuana with friends, but an autopsy determined Makaila had been beaten. May 12, 2008 - The bodies of Lisa Freiberg, 26, and her children Zachary, 7, and Savannah, 2, are found dead in their Lutz home. Freiberg's live-in boyfriend, Edward Allen Covington, 35 is accused of choking, beating, stabbing, dismembering and mutilating the family, along with the family dog. Tribune research by Michael Messano; Source: Tribune archives and wires

Researchers Michael Messano and Stephanie Pincus contributed to this report. Reporter Sherri Ackerman can be reached at (813) 259-7144.

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