Fewer children died in Sacramento County in 2013 and 2014 compared to the previous two years, but twice as many were killed by caregiver abuse and neglect, the county’s Child Death Review Team told the Board of Supervisors this week.
Sixteen children and teens died in 2013 and 2014 from abuse and neglect, compared to the eight who died in similar circumstances in 2011 and 2012, the team reported. About 80 percent of the children killed in 2013-14 were 5 or younger, and most died at the hands of parents.
“There’s no pattern, necessarily,” said Sheila Boxley, head of the Child Abuse Prevention Center in North Highlands. Without more data, meaning more deaths, she said it would be guesswork to try to determine the cause of the increase in abuse and neglect homicides.
“I’m hoping it’s a blip,” Boxley said. “I’m hoping I can never answer that question.”
The team’s findings, delivered to supervisors Tuesday, focus on the facts of each death.
Eight children died from beatings, including three from “abusive head trauma” in 2013-14, the team reported. Two victims died while riding in cars driven by a parent under the influence of alcohol or drugs. And “one each died due to attack by hatchet, shaking with abusive head trauma, drowning, abandonment after concealed pregnancy, infection with chronic neglect, and being rolled on while sleeping with an intoxicated parent,” the team’s report says.
The Child Death Review Team – whose members include representatives from area law enforcement agencies, health care systems and child advocacy groups – has been reporting on children dying in the county for 25 years. It investigates every death of those 17 and younger and produces a report every two years about the causes, natural or otherwise, and the demographics of the victims and their families.
Many California counties and counties across the country have child death review teams.
The latest report details the deaths of 265 children in the county in 2013-14. While abuse-and-neglect deaths are up over the 2011-12 rate, the average rate of such homicides is down by almost half since 1997.
Even though the team’s reports don’t explicitly explain increases or decreases in child death rates, they do identify risk factors in the lives of families whose children died. Common risk factors include a parent with a record of crime, or a family with a history of domestic violence.
Many of those who died were already in the child welfare system. Fifty percent of the abuse-and-neglect homicide victims had families involved with county Child Protective Services, the report said.
“We’re looking at over 80 percent of the children having been in some public or private system of care,” Boxley said. “That’s our chance to make a difference.”
Recognizing and dealing with risk factors in time can help keep children alive, she said.
Families often approach a nonprofit or health care organization because of a specific issue they’re having, but they could benefit from other services such as home visits or parenting classes, Boxley said. Teaching agency employees to recognize risk factors and encourage families to seek additional services could reduce child fatalities, she said.
The review team recommended creating a countywide protocol for public and private agencies to funnel families at risk for abuse or neglect into broader support services.
Similarly, eight of the 11 suicides of teens and children over the two-year period displayed a known warning sign – such as concerning messages on social media, self-harm or threatening suicide – that would typically trigger an intervention. The review team’s recommendations this year include a concentrated effort to teach schools and peers to recognize and report those warning signs.
Supervisor Phil Serna said he wants the board to discuss expanding funding during budget hearings in the spring for family resource centers throughout the county that have significant success rates at preventing child abuse.
“We’re seeing a fairly dramatic effect of the presence of Birth and Beyond (family services) in our communities,” Serna said, citing an annual report released Monday by the First 5 Sacramento Commission.
First 5 focuses on providing services to families with children from birth to age 5, the most important years for child development, according to experts.
Parents with a previous child-welfare allegation who received 25 to 34 hours of Birth and Beyond home visitation services were 133 percent less likely to have a future substantiated child abuse case, the First 5 report said.
A major way to reduce infant fatalities is by educating parents about safe sleeping practices, experts said. Those include having children sleep in cribs, not with parents, and keeping blankets and pillows away from infants to avoid suffocation.
The Child Death Review Team’s report said 28 infant deaths could be attributed to unsafe sleeping conditions, meaning all of them could have been prevented, said Marian Kubiak, chair of the review team.
A safe sleep program launched earlier this year by the First 5 Sacramento Commission is promising, she said, but no data exists yet on its success.