Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Violence ages children's DNA, shortens their chromosomes

By Liz Szabo, USA TODAY

Conventional wisdom says that hardship can make us old before our time. In fact, a new study suggests that violence leaves longterm scars on children's bodies — not just in bruises on the skin, but also altering their DNA, causing changes that are equivalent to seven to 10 years of premature aging.

Scientists measured this cellular aging by studying the ends of children's chromosomes, called telomeres, according to Idan Shalev, lead author of a study in today's Molecular Psychiatry. Telomeres are special DNA sequences that act like the plastic tips on shoelaces, which prevent the DNA in chromosomes from unraveling. They get shorter each time a cell divides, until a cell can't divide anymore and it dies.

Several factors have been found to shorten telomeres, including smoking, radiation and psychological stresses such as early life maltreatment and taking care of a chronically ill person. In this study, researchers examined whether exposure to violence could make children's telomeres shorten faster than normal. They interviewed the mothers of 236 children at ages 5, 7 and 10, asking whether the youngsters had been exposed to domestic violence between the mother and her partner; physical maltreatment by an adult; or  bullying. Researchers measured the children's telomeres — in cells obtained by swabbing the insides of their cheeks — at ages 5 and 10.

Telomeres shortened faster in kids exposed to two or more types of violence, says Shalev, a post-doctoral researcher at the Duke Institute for Genome Sciences & Policy in Durham, N.C. Unless that pattern changes, the study suggests, these kids could be expected to develop diseases of aging, such as heart attacks or memory loss, seven to 10 years earlier than their peers. Shalev says there is hope for these kids. His study found that, in rare cases, telomeres can lengthen. Better nutrition, exercise and stress reduction are three things that may be able to lengthen telomeres, he says.

The study confirms a small-but-growing number of studies suggesting that early childhood adversity imprints itself in our chromosomes, says Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School. In a 2011 study, Nelson and colleagues found shorter telomeres in Romanian children who had spent more time in institutions, compared with children sent to foster care.

"We know that toxic stress is bad for you," says Nathan Fox, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland and co-author of the 2011 paper. "This paper provides a mechanism by which this type of stress gets 'under the skin' and into the genes."

Jon D. McLaughlin

(309) 319-6206 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mother faces contempt, jail for baptizing children

Mother faces contempt, jail for baptizing children

Published March 30, 2012 | Associated Press

A Shelby County mother faces contempt-of-court charges and possible jail time for baptizing her two children without the knowledge or consent of her ex-husband.

This week the Tennessee Court of Appeals said Lauren Jarrell must face a criminal contempt hearing for violating a court order that said major decisions regarding the religious upbringing of her two children should be made jointly with the children's father.

Both parents are Christian. Emmett Blake Jarrell, the father, is a member of the United Methodist Church, and she's a Presbyterian.

The father, according to court records, thought the children should be baptized when they are older and better able to understand the significance of the baptismal ceremony. The couple, according to court records, had even consulted a minister when they were married because they couldn't agree what age was best for the kids to be baptized. Records show the children will be 5 and 7 next month.

"Obviously she knew that the father did not want the children baptized at that age and she did that without telling him," Memphis attorney Any Amundsen, who is not involved in the case, said of the mother. "She violated the court order."

The Court of Appeals decision sides with the father, who had asked that his ex-wife be convicted of criminal contempt after discovering that she baptized the kids against his wishes.

A lower court has already found the mother in contempt of court. The appellate court decision overturned that decision and said criminal contempt proceedings are more appropriate because the mother can't undo the baptisms.

Legal experts disagree on whether the appellate court decision is treading into the forbidden territory of deciding spiritual doctrine or is just upholding the law when a parent is accused of flagrantly violating a court order.

The parents could not be reached for comment. Their attorneys did not return calls to The Associated Press.

Court records show that the mother argued that it was wrong for the lower court to find her in contempt it was tantamount to preferring the father's religious views on baptism over hers.

But the Court of Appeals disagreed.

"Mother is correct that courts `must maintain strict neutrality in cases involving religious disputes between divorced parents' and they may not `prefer the religious views of one parent over another unless one parent's religious beliefs and practices threaten the health and well-being of the child," Judge Alan E. Highers wrote. "However, simply put, this is not a religious dispute." Highers said the court is only being asked to determine whether the mother can be found in contempt for failing to follow the court order.

Nashville attorney Helen Rogers says the courts ought to stay away from these kinds of decisions.

"How would a court decide between baptizing a Presbyterian and a Methodist or a Catholic," Rogers asked. She wondered whether a court could step in and order the child of a Muslim and a Jew to attend a synagogue or a mosque. The problem, she said, is that the standard parenting plan in Tennessee orders many parents to mediation if they can't jointly decide on major decisions involving religious upbringing. If they can't agree even after mediation, she said, it ultimately means that a court has to decide.

"The bigger kind of global look at this is should religious decision-making be a private matter or should it be something that a court orders to begin with," Rogers asked.

However, Amundsen said the courts are only following state law, which says the courts have to consider religious upbringing when it comes to parental decision making.

Both attorneys said it's not unusual for parents to disagree on religious upbringing.

If the mother is convicted, she could face up to 20 days in jail and a $100 fine.

Jon D. McLaughlin -- Bloomington Illinois Divorce Attorney
Allison & Mosby-Scott
(309) 319-6206