In a span of 72 hours earlier this week, three young boys were found dead in a city known to outsiders for its tranquility, taken before they were even kindergarten age, allegedly killed by adults they knew.
It was “a tragic, tragic moment,” Madison Police Chief Noble Wray told reporters on Wednesday.
But the deaths didn’t come as a complete shock to local child abuse advocates, who point to an increasingly common problem made more dangerous by a down economy.
“When your wallet’s tight it causes stress,” said Hanna Roth, co-founder of the Madison nonprofit Rainbird Foundation, which works to end child abuse. “Throw that into an already challenged life, and you’ve got a pot headed for boiling over.”
All three victims — a 3-year-old whose mother has been arrested in his death; two brothers, ages 3 and 4, whose mother’s boyfriend was arrested on suspicion of killing them — were growing up in households with documented domestic violence, which strongly correlates with child abuse.
“There’s a direct connection,” Roth said. “I think these two incidents pretty much prove that point.”
In families where both adults and children are being abused, the need for outside intervention becomes more urgent but can be more tricky, said Julie Ahnen, child protective services manager for Dane County.
If not careful, “our involvement can escalate the already tense situation,” she said. Efforts of recent years at the state and county levels have sought to train social workers to deal with both problems more effectively, and handbooks have been rewritten to collaborate efforts between domestic violence and child abuse advocates.
Details of the county’s interactions with families involved in the deaths have not been made public — a law passed in 2009 gives the state 90 days before it has to disclose such information.
Further details also were not made available about the criminal cases against Maria Castillo-Dominguez, 22, arrested on suspicion of reckless homicide in the death of her 3-year-old son, or David J. Hoem, 28, arrested in connection with the 3- and 4-year-old boys’ deaths.
Ahnen said her department has seen a steady increase in child abuse and neglect cases in the past few years, which she attributed in part to a higher poverty rate. The department now has 50 social workers after getting funding to add five additional staff two years ago.
Domestic violence cases in the county appear to have increased, as well. In 2003, the county had 2,878 cases, according to state Department of Justice figures; it had increased to 3,260 by 2008, the most recently available data.
Stopping abuse before it turns even more dangerous takes a community effort to recognize signs of abuse and report it, Roth said.
“We’ve got a child abuse situation where we blame the bad guy,” she said. “Really the bad guy is us if we saw what was happening and did nothing.”