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Thursday, June 10, 2004 02:53 pm

Killing our kids

Homicide remains a leading cause of death for young children in Illinois. It doesn’t have to be.

art1146
Cover photograph by Nick Steinkamp

On a Friday morning late last fall, a young mother ran screaming from her trailer home in San Jose. In her arms, she held the lifeless body of her 11-month-old son.

One witness said the child's face was blue; others, including relatives of the child, said the infant was covered in burns and recalled that scraps of skin hung from his body. Paramedics took the child to Pekin Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Hours later, Robin McKee Graham was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of her youngest child, Austin Graham. But there was nothing accidental about this death, according to Logan County State's Attorney Tim Huyett. On Nov. 17, three days after Austin's death, Huyett upped the charges against Robin Graham to first-degree murder.

"It was a knowing act," Huyett told the Lincoln Courier. "She placed the baby in the water, knowing it was extremely hot.... She knew what would happen."

A pathologist concluded Austin had been dead for about two hours before his mother removed him from the bathwater. "Exceptionally brutal and heinous" is how a grand jury described Robin Graham's behavior in an indictment handed up on Dec. 12.

Robin Graham entered a plea of not guilty and requested a jury trial.

In San Jose, a small community that the chief of police says hasn't had a homicide case in 70 years, the infant's death was an aberration, something the locals would rather not talk about.

But recent months have seen several similar deaths of young children in central Illinois -- at least five others near Springfield, allegedly at the hands of a parent or guardian, since March 2003.

Illinois ranks eighth in the nation in the rate of homicides of children age 4 and under. According to the most recent available statistics, the rate is 2.43 per 100,000 children.

Whereas the number of live births in the Prairie State has declined at a rate of nearly 1,000 per year between 1990 and 2001, the total number of homicides of young children has remained virtually unchanged.

In Illinois, homicide is the third leading cause of death for children age 1 through 4.

Blond, with sparkling hazel eyes and a winning smile, Robin Graham looks like someone who should just be starting her life. She is, after all, still a teenager -- she turned 19 in December.

But today she's telling her story, sitting in the conference room of the Logan County Courthouse, dressed in faded black-and-white-striped jailhouse garb and wearing ankle irons and handcuffs secured to a belly chain. Her lawyer, public defender Patrick "Tim" Timoney, will not allow her to talk about what happened on Friday, Nov. 14, but she speaks freely about her life up to the day Austin died.

It takes her less than 60 seconds to sum up the highlights:

"I was born in a Peoria hospital, at Methodist. My mother is Pamela McKee; I have an older brother, Robert McKee; and we lived in Green Valley. And then, after I was 1 to 2, we moved to Delavan. We lived there until I was 11, and then I went into foster care. I came back out, and I was almost 13. I still lived in Delavan. I dropped out of school, and then I had a baby. I moved around. We moved to Peoria, then Pekin, Manito, then back to Green Valley. I lived with my grandma for about 11 months; then I got my own apartment with Nathan [Graham, now her husband]. We got married and had our second child; then we moved to San Jose."

Of course, there is more than the one-minute version. Graham doesn't know her father's name. She spent two years in foster care. And she struggled with school.

Graham traces her distaste for public education back to the fourth grade. She liked to read, but she had trouble with other subjects, such as math. "The times table really took a toll on me," she says. And she had a problem with assignments and authority: "I was one of those kids, I'll read and read and read -- until you tell me to read, and I won't read it." By age 9, she was smoking cigarettes. "It was one of those things you do, just to see if you get caught," she says.

Graham describes herself as a tomboy, a doer, and her learning style as hands-on: "I'm not one of those people that you can sit down and explain something to. You've got to show me how to do it, and I can do it ... schools are not set up for people like me."

One thing she did remember from school was the visit from the Planned Parenthood representative, who talked about pregnancy. "I remember the whole thing about your periods and what happens if you have sex without protection," she recalls. "Actually, they need to make it a little more clear about the whole situation and not just do it once."

A little more sex education would have been a good thing, Graham says: "Girls think it is fun ... that having babies is fun.

"I thought I'd be all right raising kids, and it is harder than what they think. I babysat a lot, and I watched my grandma's neighbor's little girl grow up, and I just thought it was just going to be so easy. But you just don't give them back when you're done babysitting them here. They stay with you. I mean, like, girls that go on talk shows and say they want to have babies -- let them take care of a baby for a week. They're not going to do it. They need to be more clear about babies and protection."

Graham also remembers the visit to school by an officer from the local DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program: "It's a good program, and it's a good thing that they're starting DARE earlier, too. By sixth grade, half of the kids are already doing drugs, and if they're not doing them, they've already tried them." In the sixth grade, Graham took the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. She scored a grade-and-a-half above her grade level in reading, language, and math; she was four years ahead in spelling. She recalls, "I took that home and said, 'Hey, Mom, I'm really not stupid.'"

When she was 11, Graham says, she was molested. She won't discuss the attack with a reporter and says she's tried to block the memory from her life. Because of the molestation, she was placed with a foster family in another county, a situation in which she thrived. She says her foster parents "were awesome. They treated me just like their own." Two years later, she was returned to her mother in Delavan.

When she re-entered Delavan Junior High School, she sensed that she did not fit in. Cliques had formed, and she was not part of any of them. Her friends, she believed, were elsewhere: "I had friends from other places, and that is what it was like for me."

Within a few months, Graham had stopped going to school. Her records show no transfer or other follow-up documentation after this time. For a short time, Graham says, she attempted to teach herself, using materials from a Christian academy. But then she just quit studying -- "and no one ever said anything." Today, she says she wishes she hadn't left school.

No agency or authority appears to have checked on Graham's progress. She simply slipped under the radar.

At age 15, Graham became pregnant with her first child, Byron. Medicaid picked up the cost of prenatal care; the Women, Infants, and Children program helped after the child's birth. After Byron's birth, Graham and the child's father split. Graham held several jobs to help support herself and her child: She mowed lawns to pay for diapers. She worked as a telemarketer at APAC Teleservices Inc. in Pekin and took home $225 a week -- not enough to pay for child care, but Graham's mother, grandmother, and friends pitched in when they could. She also worked at a grocery store in Delavan and as a personal-care assistant.

Graham became pregnant a second time. The father, she says, was Byron's uncle.Despite those unusual circumstances, Graham and Byron's father, Nathan Graham, got back together and were married in December 2002. Austin arrived soon after the wedding. The young family lived in Green Valley until Nov. 1 of last year, when they moved to San Jose.

During the jailhouse interview, Graham speaks of both Byron and Austin in the present tense, as if they were playing in the next room. But when her narrative approaches the day of Austin's death, she fights to hold back tears.

She reflects on the reality of finding herself a mother too soon.

Although she expresses a mother's love for her children, she shares the truth about motherhood: "It's a job that never quits."

In San Jose, it's hard to find anyone willing to talk about Austin Graham or his mother. This is a mind-your-own-business kind of town, says Dr. Steve Tassell, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church -- you stay out of my business and I'll stay out of yours. Nobody, he says, brings up Austin's death.

San Jose -- pronounced "San Joe's" -- has a population of less than 700. It's one of those rural Illinois communities struggling for existence. The town is physically divided into northern and southern halves by U.S. 136 and split into eastern and western halves -- half in Mason County, half in Logan County -- by North First Street (Mason County Road). There's not much to the town beyond the Casey's General Store, the Hurley Funeral Home, and the Tri-County Bank. The town once had a grocery store, seed company, grain elevator, and car dealership. It even had train service. All that is a memory today.

Police Chief Aaron Hodgson says that the stretch of U.S. 136 through San Jose is busiest on Sundays, when friends and relatives of prisoners travel to the Western Illinois Correctional Center, west of San Jose near Mount Sterling. On Sundays, Hodgson and his officers make numerous arrests for drugs, guns, and suspended licenses.

San Jose's old schools are either boarded up or serve as apartments. The former high school is now an auto-repair and junk shop. Children, even the youngest, are bused 12 miles to Mason City for school. Some younger children attend Tri-County Baptist Academy, a private school.

Residents of San Jose commute an average of 31 minutes to work. Access to health-care providers is equally distant. A casual visitor sees no evidence of recent economic development, and Tassell and Hodgson agree that there's very little for young people to do in town.

When they're not stopping motorists, Hodgson says, he and his officers -- one full-time and five part-time deputies -- field 120 to 150 calls per month. Most, he says, involve domestic issues, alcohol-related incidents, and property destruction.

Tassell says alcohol and drugs are readily available. Promiscuity and unplanned pregnancy are acknowledged issues. According to the Illinois Project for Local Assessments of Needs, the Mason County Health Department's No. 1 priority is reducing infant mortality from a rate of 7.72 to 5 per 1,000 live births. A push is on to improve the percentage of women who receive prenatal care in the first trimester of pregnancy.

There is a sense in San Jose that the community's problems are bigger than its capacity to solve them. Tassell certainly voices this concern. "The people of San Jose lost hope a long time ago," he says.

When a sentinel event, such as the death of a young child, surfaces in a community, common reactions range from denial to a demand for severe and swift retribution. But in each recent case of child homicide in communities surrounding Springfield, local law-enforcement and public health reports suggest that these deaths reflect more profound public-health problems.

Health surveys seem to support that view. One of the top problems in the San Jose area, identified by IPLAN, is domestic violence. In Logan County, infant mortality is a pressing concern. In next-door Mason County, IPLAN identifies infant mortality and family violence as significant problems; in Tazewell County, just north of San Jose, the top concerns include child/adolescent
alcohol-, tobacco-, and drug-related mental disorders and depression.

And unlike some crime trends that tend to be "big city" problems, this trend hits much closer to home. Austin Graham was only one of several children to die as a result of alleged homicide in this region:

• On August 29, 2003, Farrah Jayde White, a 2-year-old girl, was allegedly murdered in her home in Marnico Village, near Jacksonville. The girl's stepfather is charged with murder; the child's mother is charged with endangering the life and health of a child.

• On September 2, 2003, Christopher Hamm, age 6; Austin Brown, age 3; and Kyleigh Hamm, age 23 months, drowned in Clinton Lake. Their mother and her then-boyfriend are charged with the murders.

• On March 3, 2003, Jule Russo, age 11 weeks, died after being repeatedly struck in her Mount Pulaski home. Her father has been charged with her murder.

Although it would be easier to believe such young homicide victims are rare and the attention drawn to them is just so much media hype, the statistics compiled by the Illinois Department of Public Health should have signaled an alert before these most recent homicides became headline news.

In 2001, homicide in the general population of Illinois ranked as the 13th leading cause of death (1,064 of 104,858). That translates into a 1-in-100 chance that an Illinoisan died by homicide. But for our youngest citizens, those 1 through 4 years old, the odds that a death was the result of homicide was 1 in 10. For Illinois children, homicide ranked as the third leading cause of death, behind accidents and congenital malformations.

If accidents and homicides of children ages 1 through 4 had been prevented in Illinois, 79 kids would have survived in 2001 and another 79 would have survived in 2002. These numbers constitute more than one third of all deaths in this age group.

The Bureau of Justice reports that although the overall number of homicides has decreased in the United States, the number of homicides of children younger than the age of 5 has increased over the past decade. For example, in 1980, homicide was the fifth leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 4 years. By 2001, homicides were the fourth leading cause of death, and the number of cases had increased by 100. Within this age group, the numbers of deaths resulting from all other causes -- including unintentional injuries or accidents, congenital abnormalities, malignancies, and heart disease -- have decreased.

The younger the child, the greater the risk of death by murder. The most dangerous day of an infant's life, especially for those not born in a hospital, is the baby's first day.

Most often, such a homicide is classified as a filicide -- the clinical term for the murder of a child by a parent. Of all children under the age of 5 murdered in the United States between 1976 and 2000, more than 60 percent were killed by their own parents -- 31 percent by fathers, 30 percent by mothers. Another 23 percent were killed by male acquaintances, and 7 percent were killed by other relatives, according to Bureau of Justice records.

Media coverage of the deaths of infants and young children, not surprisingly, fuels public outrage and finger-pointing. Prosecutors and police tend to feed the sensationalism with assertions that have yet to be proved.

These media blitzes elicit indignation and blunt the public's understanding of the epidemiology of child murder; consequently, the community is prevented from making any social or political effort to effect change. After Austin Graham's death, for example, the State Journal-Register published a letter to the editor urging parents to "reach out for help! Call a pastor, a friend, a relative, a neighbor or your physician who can refer.... For heaven's sake, call someone and ask for help."

The belief that help is out there, readily available if only the perpetrator had sought it, is common but hopelessly naïve.

The reality is, these filicides often take place against a backdrop of severe poverty, where working telephones are not available and healthy social contacts are nonexistent. The perpetrators are often experiencing episodes of overwhelming responsibility, domestic abuse, or mental illness. Some also have criminal records. In short, these are precisely the people that social-safety networks do not reach and even tend to avoid.

Other profiling characteristics typical of these murderers include young parental age, low levels of education and employment, and psychopathologies including alcohol and drug abuse. All of these factors contribute to the scenario in which many of these acts of violence occur.

The statistics suggest that legislated programs, though well-intentioned, have had a limited effect. In 2001, Illinois enacted the Abandoned Newborn Infant Protection Act. This provision permits parents to lawfully relinquish an infant age 3 days or younger at a designated haven -- a hospital, a fire station, or, most recently, any police station -- without legal consequences.

But in the four years since the law was enacted, only five babies have been safely abandoned statewide, all in the Chicago and Rockford metropolitan areas. Many members of the general public and a significant number of professionals who are by law required to provide haven are unaware of the legislation. Its provisions are not widely discussed or distributed to that group whose members might in fact be most affected. Moreover, the law fails to identify havens readily available to mothers who live in isolated rural areas of Illinois. The law is scheduled to sunset in 2007.

This doesn't mean, however, that child homicides cannot be prevented.

At the time Austin Graham died, his mother was 18, barely an adult but already the married mother of two. She had not attended school since she was 13. Today she regrets quitting school and wishes she could have become a nurse.

Although she and her young family had moved to San Jose just a few weeks before her son was killed, news reports after the death quoted residents who complained that she often left her children alone and that her children played too close to the road. Not one person claims to have stopped to talk to Robin Graham, to warn her of the danger or to ask her whether she needed help.

Asked what one thing would have made a difference in her life, would have changed the circumstances she now finds herself in, Graham is silent for several moments.

"Thinking before I do," she says, quietly. "Thinking before I do. Making me realize more things about life....

"We need to discuss more about where life will take you."

Also from Jane Adrian

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