The tally is in: 152 children died in Georgia last year whose families had a history with the state child protection agency.
But whether that’s an increase or decrease from previous years, agency officials can’t say. They dismiss past years’ figures as inaccurate. And though they say they’ve improved their data gathering, they acknowledge that even the 2012 accounting may not be complete.
That doesn’t satisfy some Georgia’s child welfare advocates, who believe the measure is key to assessing the agency’s performance.
“In order to spot trends you have to have good numbers,” said Normer Adams, the former executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children. “If you don’t know what the number is, you can’t compare one year to the next.”
Officials at the state Division of Family and Children Services, who reported the 2012 fatality numbers last week, said getting an exact count is not the most vital thing.
“The number should not be used as a scorecard,” said DFCS communications director Susan Boatwright. What’s important, she said, is that DFCS is doing more to understand why individual children died after their families came to the agency’s attention. Such case reviews, she said, “improve our practice, because (what matters) is that the children are safe and that our work continuously improves.”
Over many years, DFCS has been criticized for shortages in staffing, bouncing children from foster home to foster home, and losing children’s records. The state settled a lawsuit in 2005 that demanded improvements in the state-run foster care in Fulton and DeKalb counties.
In addition to those deficiencies, the state’s tracking of child deaths has long been suspect, said Douglas County Juvenile Court Judge Peggy Walker. In addition to incomplete reporting, she said, the agency was hobbled by outdated computer systems.
Last year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported what appeared to be a spike in deaths among children whose families had come to the attention of DFCS. For 2011, DFCS had reported 92 deaths; as of September, the tally for 2012 stood at 120.
At that time, state Human Services Commissioner Clyde Reese warned against drawing any conclusions based on the 2011 figure. “I don’t think that number is particularly accurate,” he said.
However, Dee Simms, the former head of the state Child Advocate Office, said it should not be difficult for DFCS to compile complete statistics. The agency is required by law to assign a representative to serve on a panel for each county that reviews children’s deaths.
Under the law, which dates to 1990, the county coroner is charged with informing the panel of each death of a child and determining whether the death was unexpected or suspicious and thus subject to review.
Until recently, though, DFCS workers didn’t consistently attend such county-level meetings, said Walker, who serves on a statewide committee that reviews reports from the county panels. That’s improved over the past year, she said.
“It’s been made clear that it’s a vital part of their job to be there,” Walker said.
Boatwright said DFCS has also designated a unit at the state level to coordinate the data gathering.
“The way we collect the information is different,” she said. “There is a standard process around how to send the information in, what to collect … who to send it to and what will happen when it is received.”
When DFCS learns of a child’s death, employees review the agency’s records for the past five years to determine whether it had previous contact with the family. Such contact can take many forms: referring a family to local social services; temporarily removing the children and placing them in foster care; or, in the worst cases, asking a court to terminate the parents’ parental rights.
A child’s subsequent death raises the possibility that DFCS mishandled the case, perhaps by not removing a child from a dangerous household or by removing a child but returning him or her too soon.
In 2012, the AJC reported on the case of a 4-year-old boy in Fulton County who died of alleged abuse while DFCS was involved with his family. Three agency workers were fired when it came to light that a caseworker had not visited the family in about two months. Caseworkers are supposed to visit each child at least once a month.
Agency officials also acknowledged that DFCS had done too little to protect a teenage girl in Smyrna who starved to death. DFCS had investigated the family in 2010 after the malnourished girl was discovered camping out in a Walmart store. But the girl’s mother resisted caseworkers’ efforts to compel her to place her children under a doctor’s care, and the case was later closed.
Boatwright said that now, each time a child dies whose family had contact with DFCS, officials at the state level review the case with county DFCS staff.
Walker said that kind of analysis is vital. “You can’t begin to allocate resources unless you know what the issues are,” she said.
Each year, the statewide Child Fatality Review Panel is required to submit a report to the governor and top legislators on “the prevalence and circumstances” of children’s deaths, including whether any agency was aware that the children were at risk and what might have been done to prevent them from dying.
County coroners or medical examiners attributed about half the deaths DFCS reported last week to natural or accidental causes. Eighteen were ruled homicides, including six from head trauma, five from gunshot wounds, two from stabbings and one each from asphyxia, traumatic brain injury and an incident involving a motor vehicle. In two cases, the exact cause is still pending.
Six deaths were ruled suicides. Thirteen children died while they were in foster care, but none of those was a result of neglect or abuse. Several of the children were seriously ill or had suffered injuries before entering the foster home.
The report sheds light on several troubling trends, Walker said. For example, 13 children suffocated while in bed, and seven drowned. A multi-agency campaign is under way to educate parents on these hazards.
Walker said that, gaps in its record-keeping notwithstanding, DFCS’ performance has been improving.
But Simms, who now practices law in Bibb County juvenile court, worries that gaps in the death statistics could mean gaps in knowledge, knowledge that could help keep other children safe.
“What could possibly be worse than a child dying who didn’t have to die?” she asked.
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