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Injuries sustained by Penngrove baby spark concern

Published: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 10:54 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 10:54 a.m.

The recent and unusually severe physical abuse of Lyndsay and Jesus Colula's three-month-old baby girl, which left her with injuries including a broken leg and fractured ribs, and which sent her parents to jail on charges of felony child abuse, has helped shine a light on the issue of child abuse in Sonoma County.

The incident, which occurred in the 7000 block of Sturtevant Drive — an upscale Penngrove neighborhood adjacent to Sonoma State University — has led local experts and organizations to say that access to parental education is needed to prevent these types of cases.

Jerry Dunn, interim director of the Human Services Department in Sonoma County, said that his office receives more than 10,000 reports of child abuse per year. In 2011, 2,228 reports were serious enough to warrant further investigation, which resulted in 259 children being removed from unsafe and abusive homes.

Dunn added that only about 12 percent of the cases where removal is required have to do with physical abuse.

“People have this belief that if a child is removed, it must be something like the Penngrove case,” Dunn said. “But that's usually not the case.”

Approximately 46 percent of removal is for general neglect, failure to protect a child from harm or keeping kids in an unhealthy environment, said Dunn. Another 17 percent is for caretaker absence — which Dunn said is often due to parents serving jail sentences. Thirteen percent is for emotional abuse, 6 percent is for risk of sibling abuse, 3 percent is for sexual abuse and 3 percent is for severe neglect.

“Instances like Penngrove are very unusual, but very young children are just at a higher risk for unreported abuse because they are less likely to be seen by other people,” Dunn said.

In the Penngrove case, none of the neighbors on Sturtevant Drive interviewed even remembered the Colulas or recall seeing a baby that age in the last few months. One neighbor, who refused to give his name, said that he thought he knew everyone on the street.

“But I've never seen anyone pushing a stroller and never seen anyone driving with a baby that young. I'm kind of surprised they lived here because I have no idea who they even are,” he said.

Sturtevant Drive is a small street where residents leave their garage doors open while they garden in their back yards, children play in their driveways and most of the neighbors still say hello to one another. Many Sturtevant Drive residents are baffled by how such a heinous instance of physical abuse could have happened in their neighborhood.

But Robin Bowen, executive director of the California Parenting Institute, pointed out that child abuse isn't isolated to those struggling financially.

“Often we think that when people have financial resources, they can better problem solve. But most of the time we learn to parent from our own parents,” she said. “If your example wasn't stellar, or you are dealing with drug or alcohol addiction, your finances just don't matter.”

She added that the lack of parenting education in our country adds to the continued instances of unhealthy parent behavior. Parent education could be built-in to the whole healthcare system like it is in many other countries that have more comprehensive programs, she said.

“Being a parent is really hard,” she said. “So if you don't have the education, you might do something without understanding the consequences. Parent education should just be part of what we do all the time.”

Kira Kayler at the Petaluma People's Services Center runs a parenting class called the Positive Parent Program. It's offered free of charge to families with children up to age 5 and includes individual services and groups counseling, Kayler said.

The only way to break unhealthy parenting habits is for parents to learn new techniques, said Kayler. “One of our specialties is getting the parent in who is afraid to ask for help. We want to teach them so that hopefully, the next generation will be better parents.”

But Dunn said that even though there are services to help parents through both difficult situations and day-to-day issues, it is often hard to connect people with them. Embarrassment, shame or a lack of understanding on how to access services are all typical reasons that people do not come forward when they need help, he said.

“Sometimes there is a stigma that parents need to do it on their own, but that just isn't a good way of looking at things,” he said.

For more information or to report suspected child abuse, call the Sonoma County child abuse hotline at 565-4304. To learn more about the Petaluma People's Services Center's parenting classes call 765-8488.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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