TALLAHASSEE — Every time a child dies from abuse in Florida, Department of Children and Families Secretary George Sheldon receives an e-mail on his Blackberry.
One of those messages came last month during Shaken Baby Syndrome Awareness Week, letting Sheldon know that an 8-month-old Bradenton girl died after her mother's boyfriend shook her vigorously several times. It's a situation Sheldon says has become more common as the economy gets worse.
"It's been particularly concerning to me of late, not just the number of child deaths, but the number, for instance, from shaken baby syndrome. Usually that's because you're overstressed," Sheldon said.
"One of the depressing things that goes with the job is on your Blackberry, because on a regular basis I'm reviewing some incident report."
The number of child abuse investigations and hot line calls has actually gone down over the past year, but Sheldon has noticed an increase in the most severe cases, the ones that cause incident reports to pop up in his e-mail at all hours of the day.
"I'm talking about the more violent burst of anger where the child dies — the shaken baby stuff. I was not seeing that to the same extent the first couple of years (at DCF)," Sheldon said. "We may just be seeing the tip of the iceberg as it relates to the severity of abuse cases."
In 2007, DCF investigated 28 deaths in which children had head or torso injuries often found in shaken baby cases.
In 2008, that number increased to 35, and will likely rise even more — DCF is still waiting for a medical examiner's report for 82 other child deaths it is investigating.
And it's not just a Florida problem.
"We've been hearing similar things from physicians from hospitals around the county, that there seems to be an increase in the severity of child abuse, including shaken baby syndrome," said Amy Wicks, a spokeswoman for the National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome in Ogden, Utah.
The problem is made worse because prevention programs are losing money during the down economy as state and local governments cut budgets, Wicks said.
Many parents who are out of work, or who are struggling may do things they normally wouldn't because of the increased stress, said Maj. Connie Shingledecker of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, who oversees child abuse investigations and chairs the Florida Child Abuse Death Review Committee.
"We're trying to make sure that people are aware that there are alternatives; if you're frustrated, get up and walk away. The baby itself is helpless. Its only way to communicate is crying and that is the triggering issue, the crying," said Shingledecker, who also is involved in community awareness programs on domestic violence and stress recognition.
And it's not just shaken baby deaths that seem to be on the rise, she said.
Shingledecker believes the down economy has led to more substance abuse, which has led to more deaths caused by a parent falling asleep with an infant on a bed or couch and suffocating them.
As the state's child death review committee examines 2008 cases, Shingledecker said it will look at what factors led up to the abuse cases and triggered them so that agencies can try to prevent future cases.
"There's a lot going on out there that we need to be aware of and we need to make sure that parents understand the impact that a bad decision they make in dealing with whatever stressors are in their life, the impact they can have on their children," she said.