Police have charged Andrew Whitmire with the death of Izayah Denison, alleging Whitmire shook the infant in a fit of frustration because he wouldn’t stop crying.
It’s a story too often told. In Spokane County one to two babies die each year from being shaken.
Yet Whitmire and his girlfriend, Izayah’s mother Jenuah (pronounced Gina) Denison, knew better: The couple were visited a few days before the baby was injured by a public health nurse, who repeated advice she had offered in earlier visits on the dangers of shaking a baby.
Whitmire and Denison were participating in First Steps, a state-funded program that helps poor, pregnant women receive parenting education from nurses.
Such early intervention is considered a key to preventing child abuse, and health officials laud programs like First Steps that offer direct education to at-risk families. The program serves 29,000 women, many of them single, unemployed and without a high school diploma, each year in Washington.
Now, the state budget crisis is cutting the program by 20 percent. Currently, about 42 percent of all eligible mothers are visited by nurses from the program in Spokane, a rate that will drop after the cuts. In King County the rate is 91 percent, and it’s 71 percent in Yakima, said Julie Graham, spokeswoman for the Spokane Regional Health District.
When babies seen by First Steps nurses are shaken, a review is launched to determine whether program protocols were followed.
“Unfortunately, sometimes these events happen, and there is absolutely nothing that we could have done to prevent it,” said Marilyn Walli, the health district’s First Steps manager.
The protocols include having the mother and other primary caregivers who participated in visitations sign a statement that they received information.
Elaine Conley, the health district’s director of community and family services, said signing the statement, much like a contract parents might sign with their teens about drinking and driving, creates accountability on the caregivers’ parts. Health district officials wouldn’t say whether Whitmire and Denison had signed such a contract. Police have contacted the district regarding the First Steps program and Whitmire, Graham said, but health district records haven’t been subpoenaed.
Denison said the nurse who visited her apartment offered information about shaken babies to her and live-in boyfriend Whitmire, 22.
“She talked to us about that, yes,” Denison, 23, said. “She left pamphlets with us and I sat down with (Whitmire) and went over it again.”
That nurse made an unannounced visit Dec. 23 and, after a brief chat, arranged for a more formal visit seven days later. But the appointment never occurred. Within that week Izayah was dead. He was almost 3 months old.
Whitmire’s bail has been set at $1 million. He likely will plead not guilty during his arraignment Jan. 21, said Al Rossi, the assistant public defender appointed to his case.
Police allege in court records that “Andrew (Whitmire) said Izayah continued to cry so he shook him only three times. Andrew described these shakes as gentle back and forth shakes.
“Andrew said as soon as he was done shaking Izayah he noticed Izayah was limp and not breathing.”
Police also said Izayah had been spanked with a spatula.
The police investigation apparently didn’t stop with Whitmire.
Denison said this week she has taken a lie detector test administered by police. A second polygraph test is scheduled, she said.
“They want to rule out that I had anything to do with this,” she said. “I’m not afraid. I have nothing to hide.”
Denison said she does not have a lawyer.
She said that she suffers from postpartum depression and that she checked herself into Sacred Heart Medical Center the evening Izayah was allegedly shaken and declared brain-dead.
Medical staff removed the baby’s organs for donation and took him off life support.
A few years ago, First Steps nurses began leaving brochures with mothers, encouraging them to be careful about who is watching their baby. They can also show a video about the dangers of shaking babies and how easy it is for infants to be hurt or killed by actions that may seem mild.
Most people visited by the nurses are referred by medical providers or other agencies set up to aid women and infants.
The other organizations offering First Steps nurses include Holy Family Hospital, the Community Health Association of Spokane clinic, Family Home Care, and Sacred Heart.
Health district officials fear cuts to the program could lead to more tragedies.
“We have more work to do,” Graham said, “and yet the money and numbers of nurses aren’t going to be there.”