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September 20, 2014

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PUBLIC SAFETY:

In examining Las Vegas infant’s death, experts focus on dad’s youth, violent past

A photograph of 2-month-old Janya Chinn on her mother’s Facebook page shows the tiny baby sleeping soundly on a floral-print pillow, a peaceful image showing no hint of the tragedy to come.

Janya died in March before she even learned to crawl.

Her father, Joshua Chinn, 19, is now behind bars after allegations that he abused the girl so badly that she had suffered a lacerated liver, a ruptured small intestine and a swollen brain when her grandparents called for an ambulance to their home March 12. Doctors at University Medical Center found bite marks on her torso, which Joshua Chinn told investigators were the result of him "playing with her by nibbling on her stomach."

Months later, an autopsy report deemed Janya's death a homicide. Through interviews with witnesses and relatives, including a session in which Joshua Chinn failed a lie-detector test, North Las Vegas Police alleged he had intentionally injured Janya. Joshua Chinn, 19, was arrested Sept. 12 and booked into Clark County Detention Center without bail, charged with first-degree murder.

In the aftermath of Janya’s death and her father’s arrest, experts whose job involves protecting children see two factors that are all too common in abuse cases — a history of violence and teen pregnancy.

A violent past

Joshua Chinn’s harrowing life story — and the statistics of child mistreatment in Clark County — may partly explain Janya’s sad fate.

When Joshua Chinn was a baby, Clark County Department of Family Services ruled his parents were neglectful and state officials took custody, placing him in another home, according to a DFS public disclosure form. In 2000, when he was 6, the state took custody a second time after investigators discovered he was being abused again.

The state received 10 allegations of mistreatment between 2003 and 2011. Some were found unsubstantiated, while others were not deemed serious enough to merit investigation.

Joshua Chinn was placed in mental hospitals and therapeutic homes from 2002 until 2006 for aggressive behavior and mental health issues, according to his criminal complaint.

“A history of abuser violence is a risk factor that has been demonstrated in academic literature to cause not just child abuse but domestic abuse,” said Tara Phebus, interim executive director at Nevada’s Institute for Children’s Research and Policy. “(Violence is) a way to deal with stress or conflict.”

Abuse by the numbers

According to NICRP, 37 children died from abuse or neglect from 2008 to 2012 in Clark County. The annual number of deaths peaked at 10 in 2011 before dropping by half the next year.

Despite the drop, mistreatment is so common in Clark County that Metro Police investigated 1,164 incidents of child abuse or neglect in 2012. So far this year, it has logged 791 cases.

Lt. James Weiskopf, who heads the abuse and neglect detail for Metro Police, said a majority of the department’s cases stem from referrals from DFS and from 911 calls, some of which are unrelated to children.

Reasons for neglect and abuse vary widely, as do risk factors, experts say. Family tensions and financial stress often play a part, though sometimes kids are abused simply because their parents are inexperienced or impatient.

“Anyone who has spent time around small children can know it’s a stressful situation,” Phebus said. “Unrelated to child care, if someone is maybe having a hard time having the appropriate income to support a family, they’re stressed about that. It adds to the stress.”

Teen parents

Relatives told police that Janya’s mom, Jessica Isaac, then 19, lived with her parents after the baby's birth because she and Joshua Chinn were both young and needed help with their new daughter. Despite that, Joshua Chinn didn’t like being told how to care for Janya; he was sometimes too rough on her, Isaac’s parents told investigators.

On one occasion, he threw her in the air and caught her as if she were an older child, his criminal complaint alleges.

“A 19-year-old man who bites his child on the stomach either is very aggressive or has a total lack of understanding of what playfulness with a child is,” said Kathleen Miller, executive director of Living Grace Home, an area nonprofit organization that provides counseling and financial assistance for at-risk pregnant teens.

Living Grace keeps busy. Nevada had the fourth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation in 2008 at 84 per 1,000 teens, according to a February study by the Guttmacher Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that specializes in reproductive health issues and abortion rights. The highest teen pregnancy rate in 2008 was in New Mexico (93 per 1,000 women aged 15-19), followed by Mississippi, Texas and Nevada.

Inexperienced parents such as Janya’s often lack the ability to properly handle children at different developmental stages, Miller said.

When Janya began gurgling and gasping for breath on March 12, it was her grandfather, Johnny Isaac, who told someone in the house to call 911 while he performed CPR.

“Johnny did talk about how Joshua never wanted to hear any advice that he or (Jessica Isaac’s mother) tried to give him about raising Janya and had an attitude sometimes,” investigating detective Mark Hoyt wrote in Joshua Chinn’s criminal complaint.

Police described Jessica Isaac as submissive, and witnesses reportedly said she looked scared when Joshua Chinn yelled at Janya in public.

She timidly avoided eye contact and said little when asked about her daughter’s injuries, according to the criminal complaint.

“I felt that she had more to say but she was very upset about Janya,” Hoyt wrote after his initial interview with her.

Like many young moms, she may have been too naïve to detect abuse and fight back, Miller said.

“That is one of the elements of youth having babies,” Miller said. “Their decision-making process is not fully developed.”

A "very scared" mother

Jessica Isaac eventually told investigators that Joshua Chinn had slapped Janya in the face about a month before she died because she was crying, but she shared no other details.

Caretakers at the hospital where Janya was born also told police that they had seen Joshua Chinn scream at the child while Jessica Isaac “seemed very scared and … just acted as if she wanted to leave.”

Jessica Isaac declined to comment for this story last week.

In flip-flops and a purple romper, she answered a knock at the door of her parents’ North Las Vegas home and nervously avoided eye contact while fielding questions for the family.

Asked if she or her parents could talk about Janya, she displayed the same meekness Hoyt had described days before the baby died — she simply shook her head, looked at the ground and shut the door.

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