Friends and family worried that 10-year-old Zahra Baker of Hickory, N.C., was in danger, says the Charlotte Observer. They saw bruises and a black eye. They questioned her parents. They reported suspected abuse to the Department of Social Services. Police believe the missing girl whose story has captured worldwide attention is dead. They are investigating her disappearance as a homicide and last week jailed her stepmother, who they say admitted writing a phony ransom note. As the search for the girl entered its second week, the case raises fresh questions about North Carolina’s long-troubled child protection system.
The state’s own reviews show it’s not uncommon for children to die in North Carolina under suspicious circumstances while their families are under state supervision or had recent contact with social workers. At least 137 children died during a recent five-year period in cases where abuse or neglect were suspected to have contributed – even though the state social services department had contact with their families within 12 months before they died, the Observer found. That’s up from 119 deaths during the prior five years. And it comes at a time when child deaths overall in the state are at a record low. Most of the 137 died from illnesses or accidents, but at least 26 became victims of homicide, usually committed by relatives or caregivers.