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Has media distorted issues in N.Y. child-murder trial?

For the past two weeks, many New Yorkers have watched the televised testimony of Hedda Nussbaum in the trial of her former companion Joel Steinberg, accused of murdering six-year-old Lisa Steinberg. The serious issue of child abuse, seen tragically in the death of illegally adopted Lisa, has been thrown into the public arena with the intense media concentration. Regular daytime programming was held for Ms. Nussbaum's testimony. Columnists in New York newspapers have debated her culpability for not calling police or doctors after Mr. Steinberg reportedly entered the room carrying the unconscious girl.

Some experts applaud the attention, saying it is important to make the public aware of child abuse and neglect. But others see a troubling sign in the way public perception of the case has evolved.

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``It's the phenomenon itself that has captured people,'' says Alfred Herbert of the Lower East Side Family Union. ``Here are two educated people, with all those sensational aspects.''

Not being addressed, he says, are questions of why drugs are so prevalent, or why the system is not better organized to help children like Lisa.

This case has captured attention in part because it involves an educated, middle-income family. But there is still a general attitude that among poor families, where the majority of these reported cases occur, child abuse and neglect is to be expected, says Mr. Herbert. His agency works with mostly poor and minority families at risk of breaking up over such issues as child or spouse abuse, substance abuse, or substandard housing.

Jane Stewart of the Citizens Committee for Children of New York says that although it may help teachers recognize and report possible abuse and neglect, she does not think that the publicity of this case is really helping children in this city.

Like Herbert, she says the underlying issues of abuse and neglect are not being addressed in this case.

Stewart points to the link between poverty and the lack of prenatal and medical care, lead poisoning, and accidents in substandard housing, such as the loss of lives caused by fires from unsafe heating devices.

While watching the testimony of the battered Nussbaum on television, people tend to focus on the details of the abuse instead of what is necessary for raising healthy children - physically, mentally, academically?

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Herbert questions how well the social-service system works. Lisa Steinberg had been ``noticed'' and reported to the system in several instances, but no substantial follow-up was done. He also talks about the ``profound effect'' drugs have on families. According to Nussbaum's testimony, she and Steinberg used cocaine regularly, including once after Lisa lost consciousness, but before Nussbaum called the police. ``[Drugs] just rips away at the fabric of family life,'' Herbert says.

New Yorkers have been quick to offer their opinions of the case. Most have little compassion for Joel Steinberg. Alexander Adelman of Brooklyn Heights says Steinberg is ``sick'' but should not be allowed to plead insanity. That would ``be a smack in the face to the justice system,'' he says.

But reaction, spurred by the disturbing testimony of Hedda Nussbaum, is much more complicated. Lee Jay Favors, also of Brooklyn Heights, says he believes people can be brainwashed. But people like Lois Felder, a mother of four, says Nussbaum was also responsible for Lisa's death. ``She should know right from wrong.''

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