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Many New or Expectant Mothers Die Violent Deaths

Young women may be more at risk than others, several statewide studies suggest -- possibly because of more volatile relationships with young men or less money or greater uncertainty about parenthood. Of women whose cases were researched in detail, 16 of 72 were teenage victims -- about one in five.

They included Vanessa Youngbear, a 16-year-old cheerleader in Oklahoma who was nearly seven months pregnant when her ex-boyfriend, then 18, blasted her with a shotgun. Witnesses said the boyfriend had not wanted to pay child support and had worried that he might face charges of statutory rape if authorities found out he had impregnated a minor.


Christina Colon, 24, was fatally shot this year in Pennsylvania, where her boyfriend is awaiting trial. She was five months pregnant.


_____About This Series_____

The Toll: Researchers are just beginning to discover what has been a hidden risk of pregnancy: Pregnant women and new mothers are more likely to be victims of homicide than to die of any single natural cause, several statewide studies have shown.

The Victims: As public health experts focus new attention on homicide during pregnancy, the Washington region has become a focal point. Research rarely casts light on the lives of those who were slain or how violence entered their lives at such a pivotal time.

TOMORROW

The Legacy: The tragedy of maternal homicide lingers in the lives of children left behind, some of them born as their mothers were dying. Older siblings sometimes witnessed the violence. The children often must be raised by their grandparents.

_____Multimedia_____
Video: Recovering at Ceeatta's House
Photo Gallery: The Missing Stories
_____Charts_____
Maternal Homicide in D.C. Area
_____From The Post_____
Violence Intersects Lives of Promise (The Washington Post, Dec 20, 2004)
States Add Penalties For Death of Unborn (The Washington Post, Dec 20, 2004)
Researchers Stunned By Scope of Slayings (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
How the Series Was Reported (The Washington Post, Dec 19, 2004)
_____For Information or Help_____
National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE
D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 202-299-1181
Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, 301-352-4574
Virginians Against Domestic Violence, 804-377-0335

In Nevada, Monalisa Nava was just 14 when she was gunned down -- the same age as the ex-boyfriend who allegedly killed her. Nava was happily pregnant, her mother said, but unwilling to move with her boyfriend to Mexico, as he wanted. Police and family members say he shot her in front of her younger brothers as her mother dialed 911, and he has been on the run ever since.

At any age, "pregnancy is a huge, life-altering event for both the male and the female," said Pat Brown, a criminal profiler based in Minneapolis. "It is certainly a more dangerous moment in life. You are escalating people's responsibilities and curtailing their freedoms."

For some men, she said, the situation boils down to one set of unadorned facts: "If the woman doesn't want the baby, she can get an abortion. If the guy doesn't want it, he can't do a damn thing about it. He is stuck with a child for the rest of his life, he is stuck with child support for the rest of his life, and he's stuck with that woman for the rest of his life. If she goes away, the problem goes away."

In New Jersey, the trouble was not over whether to give birth but how to raise the twins that Marlyn Hassan, 29, a bank manager, was expecting. Her husband insisted that she convert to Islam before the babies were born. She was Hindu and "wanted her children to know both religions," her cousin said. He stabbed her to death in their home, then killed her sister and mother.

In Maryland, Kennis Falconer, 26, of Takoma Park was living with her fiance, by whom she was seven months pregnant, when his other girlfriend, posing as a cosmetics saleswoman, came into her apartment and stabbed her. The deadly love triangle was intensified by the pregnancy, prosecutors said. Falconer's fiance had decided to stay with her, and the couple had bought a home together a short time earlier.

In California, Raye Rapoza, 34, was nearly eight months pregnant when her husband drove the family's minivan off a 150-foot sea cliff. Prosecutors say he had a history of marital abuse and was fixated on whether the baby was his. Perhaps most of all, "his wife had talked about leaving him, and he wasn't going to let that happen," said Jim Fox, San Mateo County district attorney. The crash killed Rapoza and her 4-year-old daughter. Her husband survived and is awaiting trial.

Although maternal homicide is only recently drawing notice, considerable research has been done on battering of pregnant women. Studies go back 20 years, and many experts have come to agree that 4 percent to 8 percent of pregnant women -- 160,000 to 320,000 a year -- are physically hurt by husbands, boyfriends or partners.

Research shows that for more than 70 percent of abused women, pregnancy does little to change the status quo. For a smaller group, pregnancy brings a peaceful period, when abuse stops. But that is mostly offset by a third group: the 27 percent for whom domestic abuse starts during pregnancy.

Some experts conclude that pregnancy is more "protective" than dangerous, but McFarlane, of Texas Woman's University, maintains that it goes both ways. "It can be a protective time for an abused woman, but it also can be a very vulnerable time," she said, recounting stories of women who were afraid to even tell a husband or boyfriend they were pregnant.

Many women endure hitting and shoving in pregnancy -- or choking and threats to kill -- because they want their child to have a father, or because they feel financially dependent or too vulnerable to break away. Some believe a baby will ease the tension.

The analysis of 72 deaths in 2002 shows that nearly 30 percent were caused by violence that did not seem related to childbearing: drug dealing, robberies, errant gunfire.

A total of 15 cases started with a missing-person report -- and ended with a body discovered in a remote field or woods. Near Huron, N.Y., a body was found, with no missing-person report. The woman had been seven months pregnant.


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