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Steinberg Case Publicity No Deterrent

December 19, 1988

NEW YORK (AP) _ The trial of Joel Steinberg, accused of fatally beating his 6-year-old daughter, made front-page news again last week until the beating death of a 5- year-old girl grabbed the headlines away.

Jessica Cortez was found battered and unconscious Wednesday in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, the latest victim in a tragic succession of children fatally battered by parents despite the massive publicity in the death of Lisa Steinberg 13 months ago.

″I haven’t seen any deterrence. We were seeing five deaths a day (nationally) before Lisa died, and five deaths per day since then,″ said Dr. Richard Krugman of the Kempe National Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect in Denver.

″It’s as though we’ve suddenly recognized this problem, yet we’re not doing anything about it.″

According to the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, 1,132 child abuse fatalities occurred in the United States last year. Krugman put the figure at 2,000 to 5,000.

Some 2.25 million reports of abused children were filed nationally in 1987, including 25 percent who were physically abused and 14 percent sexually abused, the committee said.

Jessica Cortez fit in both categories, police said.

She also fit in a third category: at least 103 children died of abuse last year in New York City.

Authorities said those numbers aren’t likely to change despite widespread publicity about child abuse and the Steinberg case - live national television coverage on Cable News Network, a cover story in Newsweek, hours of local TV coverage of star witness Hedda Nussbaum’s testimony.

But it will have some positive effect, they said.

″The Steinberg case puts the spotlight on the topic,″ said Detective Joseph Ryan, coordinator of domestic violence programs for the New York City police. ″This case is very important because it is that much more detailed, and serves to show the dynamics of violence in a family situation.″

Jessica Cortez’s death also illustrated one of the more frightening aspects of child abuse: it crosses racial and economic lines.

Geography isn’t a barrier either. This month, the parents of a 7-year-old girl were charged in her strangulation death and the father of a 10-year-old New Orleans girl was accused of killing her.

And family violence is rarely limited to just a single person, experts in the field said.

Joel Steinberg was a lawyer, Ms. Nussbaum a children’s book editor. They lived in a historic building in Manhattan’s upscale Greenwich Village. They lived a comfortable existence, and, authorities said, they abused their two illegally adopted children.

When Lisa was found in a coma Nov. 2, 1987, her adopted brother Mitchell was sitting in a dirty diaper, tethered to a chair, drinking spoiled milk. Ms. Nussbaum had also been badly battered.

Jessica’s mother, Abigail Cortez and her live-in companion, Adrian Lopez, were unemployed. They lived in a city-owned housing project in Brooklyn.

On the surface, they had nothing in common with Steinberg or Ms. Nussbaum, except they, too, allegedly battered their children. They have been charged in Jessica’s death.

In both the Steinberg and Cortez cases, drugs were apparently involved - another disturbing trend which has contributed to the rising number of child abuse cases.

Ms. Nussbaum has detailed how she and Steinberg free-based cocaine while Lisa lay unconscious in another room. Neighbors of Lopez and Ms. Cortez said they were also drug users, smoking marijuana and crack.

From July 1, 1987, to June 30, 1988, the city Human Resources Administration estimated 14 percent of its 55,286 report abuse cases were tied to drugs - a 67 percent jump from the previous 12 months.

″When an individual has a drug habit, that takes primacy,″ said Krugman. ″The abuse follows. We’ve known that for a while. I don’t think there’s any doubt about the link between substance and child abuse.″

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