The Summer of Killer Dads

Unemployed Washington dad Jeremy Cramer hoped to take a road trip east for summer vacation, but his wife said the family couldn't afford it. So Cramer, apparently in a snit, climbed into his pickup truck early this month with his 3-year-old son, Brody, and drove off. Later that night, after his worried wife contacted cops when she couldn't reach him, Cramer was discovered at the sink of a Montana gas station bathroom trying to wash off a "substantial amount of blood," according to a police report. Cops located Cramer's abandoned truck miles away with an empty child seat inside.

"We need to find" Brody, Cramer's dad told him in a recorded phone conversation at the Anaconda-Deer Lodge County police station where Cramer was taken. "Brody's dead, Dad. Brody's dead... I killed my own kid and I don't know why," Cramer responded, according to a transcript of the call in a police affidavit. Investigators soon discovered Brody's broken body in a field near Cramer's truck. He died from blunt and sharp force trauma. Detectives recovered a bloody pocketknife from Cramer, along with a second knife and two rocks on the killing field speckled with Brody's blood and blond hair, according to police.

No murder is more stupefying than the killing of a child by his own parent. Cramer's friends and family were stunned by the death of a son the father considered his best friend. Brody's death is horrifying, but what's even more incomprehensible is that the boy was one of at least 40 children likely killed by their fathers in an 82-day period in the U.S. beginning May 1, according to news accounts and substantiated by police and prosecutor records. Twenty-seven of the dads were arrested or sought in the deaths. Ten other fathers couldn't be charged because nine committed suicide after killing their kids, and one was fatally shot by cops. In the same time frame, an additional 30 fathers were charged, sentenced or convicted (or convictions were upheld) in the earlier deaths of 33 children.

In one of those cases, Wisconsin dad Aaron Schaffhausen was sentenced this month to three consecutive life terms for cutting the throats of his three young daughters a year ago. He was angry with his wife for divorcing him. After he killed the girls while visiting them in their River Falls home, he called his ex at work to tell her: "You can come now; I killed the kids."

Several cases of murdered children remained unsolved, though fathers are suspected. Dylan Redwine, 13, vanished during a court-ordered Thanksgiving visit with his divorced dad last year, which triggered the Facebook page Find Missing Dylan Redwine seeking tips and clues to locate the teen. Dylan's remains were found last month ten miles from his father's home in southwestern Colorado. No one has yet been charged in the teen's murder.

Call this season the Summer of Killer Dads. The stunning death count, which tallies only the cases that made the news, is a fraction of the number of American kids killed each year by their parents. At least 30 children a week die of neglect or abuse in the U.S., according to federal statistics, which most experts and even government officials believe significantly undercount the problem. The stats are a compilation of figures from states, which provide them voluntarily, and which are often incomplete, or even missing entirely.

Many abuse deaths are never counted because they can't be determined behind the closed doors of homes where family members are too terrified to confide in investigators. It's often impossible to prove, for example, whether an infant fell off a bed or was slammed against a wall, drowned alone in a bathtub or was held under water. Many of the killings in the 82-day death count also won't make the abuse statistics because they're outright homicides with no known recorded history of abuse. The fatal abuse statistics almost never include cases of children who haven't previously come to the attention of a child welfare agency, such as Brody, or a 20-day-old infant who hasn't been alive long enough to grab the attention of health-care workers or civil authorities before their deaths.

Yet, even in light of these incomplete statistics, the U.S. has the second highest number of child maltreatment deaths per capita, outdistanced only by Mexico, of the 27 richest nations in the world, according to the latest UNICEF figures.

Why aren't we more aware of the level of violence within our own homes, and why aren't we working harder to do something about it? We spend far more time worrying about international terrorism than we do about terror within American homes, and we debate the rights of the unborn as we ignore the horrors facing many of the newly born and completely defenseless. At least 1,500 children die each year in the U.S. from neglect or abuse, half the number of people killed in the 9/11 attacks, and that's before homicides like Brody's are counted. If a 3-year-old child was fatally bludgeoned after his kidnap by a terrorist from his American family traveling abroad, we would be outraged. Shouldn't Brody's death be just as important to us?

It is the Summer of Killer Dads, but so was last summer, and the summer before that. Every summer, every year, far too many American children's lives are ended by their parents. Apparently, we accept it as part of daily life in this violent nation.