Arrow-right Camera


Vestal: Parenting programs imperative

A baby cries. A kid can’t handle it. A baby dies.

Change the names and dates. Replace one city with another. The template just repeats and repeats. Young dudes with anger problems and no self-control lose it over a crying baby, hit the child, shake the child, choke the child …

If only we could ban bad boyfriends.

Spokane’s latest horrifying example is James R. Cooley, a 22-year-old who stands accused of fatally beating his girlfriend’s 1-year-old boy in Hillyard last Tuesday.

The boy’s name was Santiago Two Hearts. Remember it, before the next bad boyfriend makes us forget.

Cooley apparently was annoyed by the child’s crying, and he beat, squeezed and shook the child, as well as punched the boy’s 4-year-old brother, police said. He was charged Tuesday in a previous beating, in which the infant son of his then-girlfriend suffered probably lifelong damage to his vision and brain development.

He also has two of his own children, whose mother has a protection order against him.

One dead child. One badly injured child. One 4-year-old punched in the face. In less than six months.

Why does it seem that every time a child is killed, a bad boyfriend is responsible? Out of all cases of abuse or neglect, parents are by far most likely to be at fault. But in the worst cases – deaths from child abuse – unrelated men have been involved in eight out of 28 Washington cases in the past three years, said Sherry Hill, spokeswoman for the state Children’s Administration.

“I’ve seen that as one of the common themes in most – not all – but in most of the child fatalities and serious injuries to children in this state,” said Denise Revels Robinson, assistant secretary of the Children’s Administration.

It’s like these families need someone to come to their home or something. Someone to give them advice or coping strategies. Health and nutrition tips. Anger management skills. Someone to suggest to moms that they choose their baby-sitters very carefully, and suggest to boyfriends that they put that wailing child down and take a deep breath.

Someone like, oh, I don’t know – a public health nurse.

Of course, these days we’re sending fewer and fewer nurses into the homes of young, poor parents. A statewide program called First Steps – providing in-home visits and other support during and after pregnancy – is scheduled for elimination in March, as a part of state budget cuts. First Steps serves 65,000 women across the state.

The Spokane Regional Health District has already withdrawn from the program, because it had been so drastically whittled down that officials didn’t feel it was effective, said Elaine Conley, division director for the community and family services program at the district. Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, as part of its $7 million cost cutting, is eliminating its maternal support services program.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Health and Social Services cut programs across the board by 6.3 percent just last week. That’s 380 positions, with services in every corner of the agency scaled back.

What do you call a safety net that’s all hole?

“We had to make some very difficult choices,” Robinson said. “There clearly will be some reductions (in families served). … We’re prioritizing which families get referred. Some families have more urgency than others.”

Here in Spokane County, a promising program provides extensive, long-term support for families – though just 200 of them. The grant-funded health district program, called the Nurse Family Partnership, includes an emphasis on the dangers of shaking a baby and the importance of caution in choosing someone to watch a child, Conley said.

She said the partnership is more effective and lasts longer than First Steps, though the latter program served nearly 1,000 mothers. But even then, fewer than half the women who qualified could get in. Now, in a county with a poverty rate of about 14 percent, a lot of people aren’t getting any help at all.

“We are serving a very small percentage” of mothers who qualify, said Conley.

Even if there were a nurse for every family in town, of course, these cases would not disappear. There is no perfect fix, no 1-1 ratio of program to solution.

Which should not mean that we accept these tragedies as inevitable. Home visits by public health nurses have shown promise in reducing child abuse as well as a wide range of other problems. We’re a pathetic lot if our only substantial response to abuse is to fill up jail cells.

“I think we can quit assuming as a society that parenting is an instinct that every new mom and dad has,” Conley said. “Parenting is a learned skill, and many times it’s based on the kind of parenting you were exposed to as a child. … Unfortunately, I think we need a lot more parenting programs in this community.”

Unfortunately, what we’re getting – and what we’re likely to be getting in the foreseeable future – are a lot fewer parenting programs in this community.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@

There are eight comments on this story »