DFCS child death cases spike in 2013

Deaths of Georgia children under state protection apparently spiked last year, undeterred by intense scrutiny and promises of reform.

Officials recorded 180 deaths in 2013 among children whose families had attracted the attention of the state Division of Children and Family Services during the previous five years — 18 percent more than the 152 such deaths reported in 2012.

More children died even as news articles and other investigations revealed widespread failures by DFCS workers and, perhaps more important, their bosses. Those reports, as well as the highly publicized deaths of two children in metro Atlanta, led Gov. Nathan Deal to call for hiring hundreds of additional caseworkers and to replace DFCS’ top leader.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last year that DFCS workers’ mistakes contributed to numerous deaths, as did pressure from agency executives to place far fewer children in foster care, even when they faced obvious danger at home.

The agency released information on the 2013 deaths at a forum Friday sponsored by the Georgia Children’s Advocacy Network. Officials cautioned that some of the increase in deaths might be attributed to more rigorous data collection. They also dismissed the idea that the agency has the ability to intervene in every case that ends in tragedy, especially those in which a parent or other caretaker kills a child.

“It is a major mistake to jump to the conclusion that because we get a report at DFCS, that we have the ability to prevent the death,” said Bobby Cagle, who became DFCS’ interim director in June. “We cannot be present at all times. Our role is the reduction of risk.”

The agency’s reviews of death cases show many caseworkers performed admirably, Cagle said, but he acknowledged some “could use improvement.” He said the agency is designing training that will help workers better assess the risk to children whose families they investigate.

Melissa Carter, executive director of Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center, said many DFCS cases open with little more than a hint of trouble in a family — nothing that would suggest a risk of a homicide. Even so, she said, “this is a community responsibility and not just a responsibility that falls to DFCS.”

The DFCS report shows the number of deaths increased last year in 10 of the agency’s 15 regions. In northeast Georgia, for instance, fatalities doubled from eight in 2012 to 16 in 2013. In southwest Georgia, the opposite corner of the state, the number dropped from 16 to 10. In Fulton and DeKalb counties, which reported the most fatalities, deaths increased from 18 in 2012 to 25 in 2013.

Children 1 year or younger accounted for 86 deaths, almost half of all those reported in 2013. “Those are the most vulnerable children we deal with,” said Martha Dukes, DFCS’ child death liaison. Four in 10 deaths among the youngest children were blamed on unsafe sleeping conditions, but officials said other factors, such as parents’ drug use, also play a major role.

Among children younger than 1, nine died in homicides, DFCS said. The manner in which 31 died could not be determined.

Of the 180 deaths overall, DFCS stressed that autopsies and other investigations classified nearly two-thirds as being from accidents or natural causes. Twenty-six of the 180 deaths were ruled homicides, up from 22 in 2012.

But questions often go unanswered in many deaths considered accidental or natural, the Journal-Constitution found last year in its investigation of child fatalities. Many children died while sleeping with parents who were drunk or otherwise impaired. Others died because parents failed to obtain medical care for their children’s health problems. Authorities frequently file charges against drivers who cause fatal accidents, but rarely do so against parents whose neglect results in a child’s death.

Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said every child’s death doesn’t need to be treated as a possible crime. Rather, he said, police officers should be trained to detect suspicious circumstances that might indicate a parent is more culpable than he or she might initially seem.

“This is all dependent on everyone doing their job,” Keenan said.

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