SPRING CITY, Sanpete County — A 20-year-old father is accused of causing severe and multiple injuries to his newborn baby, less than 1 month old, by punching and shaking the girl.
The case is the latest in a recent spate of disturbing incidents in Utah involving abuse of children.
"This is happening too often. The last several days I’ve noticed all the reporting about significant child abuse cases occurring throughout our state. We’ve had several child abuse incidents here in Sanpete County. What do we do?" asked Sanpete County Attorney Brody Keisel.
"This is a tragedy in every sense of the word, and we're concerned."
John Reese Elkins, of Spring City, has been charged in Manti's 6th District Court with three counts of child abuse, a second-degree felony.
On Aug. 20, doctors at Primary Children's Hospital told investigators that the baby girl, Haley Petersen, suffered multiple fractured ribs — some fresh and some that had been cracked the week before and were healing — as well as two breaks in her legs, liver and esophagus damage due to severe trauma, and bleeding between the skull and the brain, according to a police affidavit filed in court.
The child was in serious condition at the time and underwent surgery. Haley remained hospitalized Friday, but her condition was unknown.
“Hopefully we’re seeing some improvement, but (she) still has some time to go,” Keisel said Friday. “The baby was only 27 days old when the incident occurred, so in a child that young, it’s difficult to know what the long-term prognosis is. Right now, they do expect the child to survive, but time will tell what type of after-effects result.”
The girl's mother, who is 16, and her grandparents told police that the three of them left for some appointments the morning of Aug. 19 and left the baby with Elkins. Just three hours later, the child's mother asked Elkins to bring the baby to her, the affidavit states. The grandparents noticed a rattle in the newborn's chest and decided to take the baby to the doctor because they thought she was sick.
"Upon undressing the infant for an exam, the mother and grandparents noticed fist-shaped bruising and marking on the abdomen of the infant," the affidavit filed with the charges state.
A Spring City police officer who listened in on a conversation between the baby's mother, and Elkins said the man at first denied any abuse but later admitted to shaking the baby. He also initially denied punching the child. "A few minutes later, John Elkins stated that he had lost his 'cool' and accidentally punched the baby once or so," according to the affidavit.
When confronted about the broken leg, Elkins admitted that while putting the baby in the car seat, her leg was at a "funny angle so he pushed it into place," the affidavit states. "He also admitted to squeezing the baby the previous week when the baby was crying."
The mother told investigators she had previously scolded Elkins many times for the "aggressive" way he picked up the baby, held her and burped her.
Elkins was arrested and booked into the Sanpete County Jail. A preliminary hearing in his case is scheduled for Sept. 3 in Manti.
In the past week alone there have been several cases of suspected abuse of children, including:
• Alicia Englert, 23, is being investigated for attempted murder for allegedly disposing of her newborn daughter in a trash can in Kearns. The baby was found Tuesday morning.
• Adam Joseph Barney, 23, was charged Thursday in Ogden with aggravated murder for allegedly punching his girlfriend's 14-month-old daughter in the head and stomach before squeezing her.
• Barbara Jeanette Orchard, 29, was charged Tuesday with child abuse after police say she left her 5-year-old son unattended outside a Murray club while she went in to have a drink.
"This is getting to be way too frequent through the whole state, and even here in a rural county,” the Sanpete County attorney said. "We talk about deterrence. The last person we dealt with of this similar nature of crime, he’s presently in the Utah State Prison, and he’s going to be there a long time."
Keisel said resources are available to help parents.
"Every parent has had times when they’ve been frustrated with a child, especially infants, especially at times when they’re just not mature enough to be able to comfort themselves. Does frustration set in? Absolutely," he said. "But there’s all kinds of education. There’s all kinds of resources out there.
"We cannot continue to have this kind of result."
The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome, headquartered in Farmington, says between 1,200 and 1,400 children are injured or killed each year in the United States by shaking. It offers prevention and awareness programs to teach parents, students and caregivers.
Information about those resources can be found on the center's website at www.dontshake.org.