Not So Safe at Home

Posted Aug. 29, 2008, at 8:38 p.m.

There is some comfort in knowing that typically about half the 25 murders in Maine each year are at the hands of family or friends because it means Maine does not suffer the random violence seen in other states. But going deeper into that statistic, the reaction should be horror. Too many Mainers are being killed by the people who love them — or purport to love them. And maybe the most relevant factor is that the perpetrators hold some power over their victims.

The latest domestic violence horror, as alleged by police, involves a Rockland father throwing his nine-week-old daughter to the floor in frustration, killing her. It’s easy to dismiss such a crime as having little to do with normal parenting.

As aberrant as such behavior is, it springs from one of life’s greatest challenges — parenting. And that begs the question: Are there measures government, health care and social services agencies can take to help parents manage the frustrations that come with a new baby who seems to cry incessantly, leaving Mom and Dad grasping for solutions?

Yes, says Dr. Charles Tingley, executive director of the Bangor-based Northeast Occupational Exchange. For about 15 years, NOE has offered parenting classes. Often, the student parents are mandated by courts to attend. Dr. Tingely wholeheartedly recommends the material be taught to the general population. “It’d be a nice required course in high school,” he said.

“The constancy of parenting can be overwhelming at times,” Dr. Tingley said. It may be harder than it was a generation ago. “The storm and stress of parenting these days [is worse],” he said, “and the family is less extended these days.” Becoming angry, perhaps out of anxiety and the inability to address a baby’s needs, also is normal. A very normal parent may say something like, “I can’t shut the baby up,” Dr. Tingley said.

What’s not normal, or course, is throwing a baby to the floor.

Among the risk factors for violent parenting, he said, are a history of domestic violence in the household; being a single parent; substance abuse; financial pressure; and maternal depression.

NOE’s classes run 25 weeks, which is part of their success, Dr. Tingley believes. Some 250 video vignettes are available to instructors to show parents what they may face. At the core of the class is teaching parents how to play with their children, how to praise them — don’t be stingy with it, Dr. Tingley stresses — how to give children tangible rewards, how to set limits and manage behavior.

NOE offers a 24-hour emergency line — 800-857-0500 — for parents who may be at the end of their rope. Such a resource should be beefed up around the state, staffed by volunteers. Another component of such a statewide hotline could allow parents to hear recorded messages about ear aches, colic, teething, fevers, age-appropriate discipline, potty training and diet.

Many hospitals offer post-natal counseling sessions for new parents. Again, such services could be expanded with follow-up appointments for both mother and father.

The rewards for such intervention go far beyond avoiding tragedies like the one in Rockland. Healthy families are an essential building block of society.

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