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Too many babies dead too soon

By Eileen McNamara, Globe Staff, 09/10/97

The police photo of the defendant's hands remained on the TV monitor all morning in Courtroom 304, a visual reminder of the question at the heart of Commonwealth v. Kareed Baker in Suffolk Superior Court.

Could a father, any father, really kill his infant son with his bare hands?

We know the answer - at least 2,000 young children are killed every year in this country by their parents or caregivers - but we express incredulity every time a baby turns up dead.

This time the baby is Dymitrius Baker, a 7-month-old boy from Chelsea whose skull was shattered against a plaster wall 12 months ago. His father, Kareed Baker, stands accused of his murder.

In an airless courtroom in downtown Boston, a small voice from the witness box competes with the wail of sirens from the street outside. She had a baby, Naomi Poe tells the court, but her baby died. Her affect is more flat than stoic as she recounts the facts of Dymitrius's conception and birth when she was a 15-year-old runaway from one of her many foster homes.

She was ''on the run,'' she says, so she moved in with Baker within 24 hours of their second meeting. He was 10 years older than she, but he offered a place to sleep.

The autopsy that followed Dymitrius's violent death revealed that their son had suffered fractures of the wrist, the thigh, and the ankle in the months before his murder. But Naomi Poe says she knew nothing of those injuries.

She took her son for regular medical checkups and his pediatrician never detected them, either, not even at a visit two weeks before his death. She had asked the doctor that day why Dymitrius seemed to favor his right leg whenever he pulled himself up in his crib.

The pediatrician examined her son, but ordered no X-rays and asked no further questions. She was assured Dymitrius was fine. Twelve days later, he was dead.

Doctors aren't much different from the rest of us in their denial of the extent of child abuse, especially among the smallest victims. More than half of the 2,000 children killed each year don't make it to their first birthdays, according to the US Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect.

As often as not, the suspicious death of a baby is never adequately investigated or resolved. Without obvious evidence of trauma, too many such deaths are classified as ''accidental'' or ''unknown'' or, commonly, ''Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.''

This week, two researchers say they have documented what many advocates for children have long suspected: That parents may have deliberately caused many deaths that were incorrectly attributed to SIDS.

Dr. Thomas Truman, a onetime pediatric research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Dr. Catherine Ayoub, a psychologist there, contend that doctors at Mass. General routinely overlooked homicide as a possible explanation for a child's sudden death. Their reluctance to consider anything but a medical cause for sudden deaths, or near-deaths, had the effect of putting children at risk.

Their findings should give impetus to a long-stalled effort in Massachusetts to establish child fatality review teams at both the state and local levels. Such mortality review panels, common in other states, monitor all suspicious child deaths.

The panels are composed of interdisciplinary teams, with representation from law enforcement, medicine, social work, and other offices concerned with the protection of children.

Legislation to establish such review boards here has been derailed repeatedly by the opposition of some medical examiners and district attorneys who do not want to share authority to investigate possible homicides. With more than 100,000 cases of child abuse reported in Massachusetts last year, and too many babies like Dymitrius Baker dead too soon, the public has little patience for such petty power plays.

A Suffolk County jury will decide who killed Dymitrius Baker. His two hapless parents will spend the next two weeks pointing fingers at each other in an effort to avoid culpability. Naomi was a negligent mother who was out partying with a new boyfriend a week after the funeral, says he. Kareed was a violent man who slammed his fist through plaster walls at the smallest provocation, says she.

By yesterday afternoon, the men and women who will decide what happened to one baby one night one year ago were no longer staring at a photo of the defendant's hands. The prosecutor had replaced it with a snapshot of a smiling baby boy, still alive.

This story ran on page B01 of the Boston Globe on 09/10/97.
Copyright 1997 Globe Newspaper Company.

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