A recently published state report shows that a primary caregiver’s partner — typically a mother’s boyfriend — was identified as the suspect in more than half of child abuse and neglect cases in Clark County in fiscal 2016.
The issue has surfaced over the years with the news of several high-profile cases, including the October 2016 killing of a 7-year-old boy, who was tied up for several hours and beaten to death. His mother’s boyfriend was convicted of second-degree murder two years later.
On Tuesday, the subject was again thrust into the spotlight when Las Vegas police announced the arrest of a suspect in the death of 2-year-old Amari Nicholson: his mother’s boyfriend.
Whether this glaring statistic has improved or worsened in Clark County in recent years is unclear. The 90-page report, published late last year by the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services, touched on the division’s major findings in child abuse and neglect cases in fiscal 2016, which encompassed July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2017.
The report also examined statewide child fatalities in 2016 and 2017, the most recent years for which complete data is available on such deaths.
During that time frame, according to the report, 47 child deaths were ruled homicides in Nevada. In nearly 80 percent of those cases, the victim was younger than 5.
‘Very far behind’
“The thing about child fatality data is that it’s often very far behind, because there are a lot of involved parties when something gets this serious — including law enforcement, medical examiners, the coroner,” said Dr. Kathryn Roose, a deputy administrator for Child and Family Services. “We can’t actually put a data point in a category until all of those things are resolved.”
This looming gap in data can make it difficult for experts to study and dissect what could lead someone to abuse a partner’s child, according to Liz Ortenburger, CEO of SafeNest, Nevada’s largest nonprofit dedicated to ending domestic violence.
“The data we have now is nearly five years old. What’s frustrating for those of us who work in this field is that we aren’t able to come to the table much earlier to discuss child fatalities,” she said. “Some of that has to do with due process and the justice system.”
Due to the complexity of fatal child abuse or neglect cases, a coroner ruling in such deaths often remains pending for many months, or even years in some instances. In the justice system, that can translate to a delay in arrests, because law enforcement officials may be waiting on autopsy results to pursue charges.
“The problem is, because the data is old, we don’t have more concrete answers about the dynamics of this subset of child fatalities,” Ortenburger said of child deaths where the perpetrator was a parent’s intimate partner.
Warning signs of child abuse and red flags
Still, experts say, there are warning signs parents should look for when choosing a partner or a caregiver.
“We know that single moms can be targets for pedophiles and other abusers, because oftentimes, single moms need help with child care through no fault of their own,” Ortenburger said, adding that some abusers may even view a child “as a hindrance to the relationship.”
In the case of 2-year-old Amari, whose disappearance sparked an extensive police search that spanned two states, the toddler was left under the sole care of his mother’s boyfriend, Terrell Rhodes, while the woman traveled to Colorado to assist her mother. Police have said the couple shared an apartment.
After falsely reporting that the child had been taken by a woman claiming to be a relative, according to his arrest report, Rhodes later confessed to killing the child, hitting him several times with a closed fist after the toddler wet himself.
The boy’s mother, Tayler Nicholson, could not be reached Friday for comment. But on Tuesday night, after Rhodes’ arrest, she wrote in a now-deleted Facebook post: “I trusted him and he betrayed me. He took my whole world from me.”
According to the Nevada Institute for Children’s Research & Policy, children living in a home with a mother and her boyfriend are 11 times more likely to suffer physical, sexual or emotional abuse than children living with married parents. And children younger than 5 who live with their mother’s boyfriend or other non-relatives are 50 times more likely to die from abuse, according to the research institute.
Red flags, according to the institute, include unpredictable moods, cruelty to animals, jealousy or controlling behavior. Other signs that a parent or child could be at risk include alcohol or drug abuse, or if the partner is quick to anger when a child is crying or misbehaving.
For non-emergencies, Clark County residents may report suspected abuse or neglect by calling 702-399-0081, while Washoe County residents may call 775-785-8600. All other Nevada residents may submit a report by calling 833-803-1183.
Choosing your partner
The Nevada Institute for Children’s Research & Policy has created a free “safety test” for parents. The test instructs parents to ask themselves the following questions. Does your partner:
— Enjoy spending time with you and your child?
— Say nice things about you and your child?
— Talk to you and your child in a respectful way?
— Give your child positive attention?
— Listen to and respect you and your child’s feelings?
— Understand that children do different things at different ages?
— Use positive discipline, like time-outs?
— Take interest in your child’s schoolwork and activities?
— Make you and your child feel special?
— Make you and your child laugh and feel happy?
— Make you and your child feel safe and secure?
— Treat other women/men in his/her life with love
— Treat other children, such as nieces and nephews, with love and respect?
If you answered “no” to even one of the questions, according to the research institute, your child could be at risk. More information and resources for parents can be found on the institute’s website.