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July 21, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 21, 2004

PALO ALTO

Unanswered questions persist after second infant death Unanswered questions persist after second infant death (July 21, 2004)

Factors like isolation, lack of support could play role ibn Second case of infanticide in two weeks

by Alexandria Rocha

Isolation and the lack of a support system could be contributing factors in the recent cases of infanticide that shocked Palo Alto the past two weeks, social workers said.

Two Palo Alto women remain in custody after being charged on suspicion of killing their newborns. The incidences have left law enforcement and social workers looking for answers to the tragedies.

Ophelia Vanider Hill, 31, was arrested Sunday on charges of manslaughter and cruelty to a child after her former landlady found a dead infant in the suspect's Webster Street apartment.

According to police, Vanider Hill lived in the apartment for six years before abandoning the unit in April. The landlady, Althea Andersen, found the baby Sunday while cleaning out the apartment, a task she was unable to do earlier because of eviction laws.

Andersen was unavailable for comment.

Although specifics of the case had yet to be revealed, one social worker said the circumstances of the suspect's life could be significant.

"If this woman was living in that apartment building for six years and probably struggling to pay the rent, I don't think she had a lot of resources," said Ken Borelli of the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency. "Where is the family support system? If someone is pregnant, most families come together to help the new mom. When someone is isolated, they don't have a lot of that."

This is the second case of apparent infanticide in two weeks. Maria Ana Quinones, 22, was arrested July 8 on suspicion of murdering her newborn in February and dumping it behind the Palo Alto Days Inn, where she worked.

"It goes back to what does that pregnancy symbolize? Is that pregnancy the product of a casual relationship? A product of incest? A product of rape?" A lot of this goes unreported," Borelli said.

Just one day after Vanider Hill's baby was found, the Webster Street apartment fourplex resembled a ghost town. An apparently brand new "No Trespassing, Private Property" sign guarded the entrance. But no other signs of tragedy were visible: windows to the neighboring units remained open, indicating an overall feeling of safety.

A neighbor, who declined to give her name, said the neighborhood is usually quiet and calm.

The Santa Clara County Coroner's Office conducted an autopsy on the baby Monday, but could only say the cause of death is pending and the investigation is still ongoing. Police also didn't release information regarding the baby's father.

"We have to follow up on leads and releasing any information can jeopardize that," Palo Alto Detective Kara Apple said.

Apple said Vanider Hill's arraignment is scheduled for Wednesday.

According to Child Trends, a national nonprofit research firm, homicide is the leading cause of injury deaths among infants under one year of age in the United States. Infants are most likely to be killed by their mother during the first week of life, but are more likely to be killed by a male thereafter.

Between 1970 and 2000, the infant homicide rate more than doubled to 9 instances per 100,000 children under age one, according to Child Trends. However, infant homicides have been on the decrease for the past few years; there were about 270 infant homicides in 2002, which was down from 332 the year before.

Besides isolation and lack of a support system, other risk factors regarding infant homicide include a second or subsequent baby born to an unmarried teenage mother; no prenatal visit before the sixth-month of pregnancy or no prenatal care at all; a history of maternal mental illness; a mother with 12 or fewer years of education; or a premature birth.

Staff writer Alexandria Rocha can be e-mailed at arocha@paweekly.com


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