New York focuses on child abuse as murder trial starts

The murder trial of Joel Steinberg in the death of six-year-old Lisa Steinberg has begun in New York City. And the case once again focuses attention on how a community should respond to child abuse. Lisa Steinberg was raised since birth by Mr. Steinberg and his companion Hedda Nussbaum. Lisa was found comatose in the couple's Greenwich Village apartment Nov. 1, 1987, after Ms. Nussbaum called police, apparently hours after the injuries occurred. The girl died four days later. Lisa and toddler Mitchell Steinberg had never been legally adopted by Steinberg and Nussbaum.

Lisa was one of more than 100 children in New York City who died last year in cases of suspected abuse and neglect. The National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse says that 1,100 children died last year in cases of reported abuse or neglect. But the committee suggests the number is as high as 5,000. Lisa's death renewed national concern about the problem of abuse.

``Lisa Steinberg's legacy is that middle-income families now relate to child abuse - it's not just a low-income disease,'' says Vincent Fontana, director of the New York Foundling Hospital and chairman of the Mayor's Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Others complain that it was only when a white, middle-class child died that the spotlight on abuse and neglect became as intense as it did. Dr. Fontana says that it is the non-typical cases that become headline news.

In the aftermath of the Steinberg case, the task force examined links between domestic violence and child abuse, and recommended the police and the city's Special Services for Children department work together to develop guidelines for acting in cases of domestic violence.

The task force also recommended that reports of abuse and neglect determined to be unfounded should not be automatically expunged from the record, but that a third, confidential category be available called, ``unfounded, insufficient evidence.'' That way patterns of abuse or neglect could more easily tracked.

But Fontana still faults the lack of communication and coordination between institutions that deal with children and parents, such as the schools, health-care programs, drug rehabilitation centers, mental hygiene clinics, law enforcement, and the community at large.

On the preventive side, Fontana talks about two programs that can help potentially abusive parents.

First, the New York State Citizens Task Force on Child Abuse and Neglect has sought to establish a statewide network of programs for parents of newborns. Through local hospitals, parents are told of community-based support and education programs.

And, second, at the Foundling Hospital, a ``crisis'' nursery allows parents to drop off children in times of stress. When parents come into the crisis nursery, counselors connect them with community resources, such as a homemaking service, day care, or drug abuse program.

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