The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA


April 25, 2014

My Turn: Lessons from Khalil's death

— In 2012, a Philadelphia medical examiner testifying during the preliminary murder hearing for Khalil’s parents needed 61 minutes to fully list and describe the sea of scars that covered 6-year-old Khalil’s emaciated 29-pound body. He stated that Khalil had been severely beaten over a long period of time adding that Khalil had 15 visible scars across his face alone.  Loop-like and linear scars covered his body as he was regularly beaten with belts and extension cords.

His mother claimed that she beat Khalil with a belt almost every day or threw books and shoes at him if he was “misbehaving or messing in things he had no business in.” In his final months, confined to his bedroom and vomiting nightly, his parents continued beating him because “they felt that he was vomiting on purpose.”

In the last 8 months of his life, Department of Human Services (DHS) staff assigned to Khalil’s siblings spent time with Khalil during eight supervised visits at a Human Services facility and the family’s apartment but failed to recognize that he was a child in great danger.

It is clear from Khalil’s tragic death the system that has given hope to millions of children and has saved lives is far from perfect. In 2012, Pennsylvania investigated child abuse reports at a rate of 8.6 per 1,000 children compared to the national rate of 42.7 per 1,000 children. In that same year, the national documented child abuse rate was 9.2 per 1,000 children while the lowest documented child abuse rate in the nation was Pennsylvania’s 1.2 per 1,000 children. Pennsylvania’s victimization rate in 2012 for children under 1 was zero while the national rate was 21.9. Ohio recorded 9,440 child abuse victims who were 3 years of age or younger in 2012 while New Jersey had 3,113, Delaware 732 and Pennsylvania 384.  Pennsylvania’s statistical outlier status is due to the state’s narrow definition of child abuse and who can be a perpetrator.  Legislation has been passed to hopefully address the aforementioned flaws in the system.

It is clear in the state mandated review of Khalil’s death that child welfare professionals failed at almost every juncture to rescue Khalil. His parents, who committed the heinous crime, are serving 30-60 years. The detailed report also faults decisions made by DHS staff and superiors, a Family Court Judge, city lawyers and a primary care doctor. Children deserve special advocates, watchful community eyes, continuing community connections, diligent lawyering, thorough judges, expeditious litigation and better communication among health care workers, courts and DHS.

It is important to attempt to identify parents at high risk for being unable to accept, love and properly discipline and care for their offspring. Parents who abuse their children have been reported from most ethnic, geographic, religious, educational, occupational, and socioeconomic groups. In general, however, these abusive parents are lonely, unhappy, angry, young, single and poor. They have little or no knowledge of child development and child health, and have unrealistic expectations for child behavior.

Abuse and serious neglect may be prevented when at-risk families receive intensive training and support during pregnancy and after delivery. Prevention efforts should include early and frequent contact between mother and baby in the delivery room, rooming-in, ongoing counseling regarding discipline and the use of nonphysical responses to behaviors, public health nurse visits or trained home visitors, parenting classes as well as stress and anger management classes.

Preventing child abuse and protecting children is a shared community responsibility.  Each of us has a part to play.  We all must be willing to report suspected abuse or neglect.

Pat Bruno, M.D., of Selinsgrove, specializes in recognition of child abuse.


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