The report is the first in a series that will be issued quarterly to track the deaths and help state authorities, parents and others identify ways to prevent them, said Clyde Reese III, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services. State officials must inform federal authorities of child deaths related to abuse or maltreatment, but the new reports look at a larger group of fatalities. Reese said the reports will use a consistent methodology, allowing for meaningful comparisons.
“The problem that I saw was that we weren’t always looking at the same kind of data, so it’s very hard to look back and see trends,” he said.
Natural causes were cited in 34 percent of deaths, the single-largest category, according to the report. Accidents accounted for just over a fifth of fatalities, while the manner of death was undetermined in 18 percent of cases. Homicides accounted for 13 percent of the deaths, and suicides made up 3 percent. Investigations were still pending in 11 percent of the total fatalities.
Officials said the report was triggered by a desire to compile better information, not by a single incident or crisis. But federal officials have penalized Georgia for the performance of its child welfare system over the years and it has been the target of lawsuits intended to improve foster care in metro Atlanta.
In 11 cases, children died while the Division of Family and Children Services was providing assistance to a family due to substantiated maltreatment. One of those children died from physical abuse inflicted by a father. Two children died as a result of unsafe sleeping arrangements after child protection officials had opened cases on their parents for drug use.
Of most concern to state officials were the 10 cases where children died while they were in state custody. The causes of those deaths varied. Three children died as the result of alleged maltreatment they suffered before they were placed in foster care, state officials said. Another child died of complications blamed on a traumatic head injury inflicted by an uncle that caused her to be placed in foster care a decade earlier. One child died from an overdose. Two of the fatalities involved children who were born premature and entered state custody when their parents refused blood transfusions. The children never left the hospital.
The director of the Division of Family and Children Services, Ron Scroggy, said the information will be shared with the public and others interested in child safety. In the past, little was generally said about child deaths, he said.
“We believe we need to talk about it and see what’s the cause of this death and perhaps learn something so another child won’t have to suffer that fate,” he said.
Unsafe sleeping conditions were a common factor in multiple deaths. Officials said nine children were co-sleeping with adults at the time of their death, putting them at risk for smothering. Another eight children were sleeping in what the agency described as less-than-optimal conditions, for example, a crib with adult pillows or blankets.