An alarming number of children are dying while under the watch of state social workers or shortly thereafter, a study by The Seattle Times reveals.
In a copyright story Sunday, the newspaper said its study found that such children are four times more likely to die than the state’s other children.
Nearly all the deaths were ruled natural or accidental. However, the newspaper concluded that at least a third of them may have been preventable.
The newspaper’s study, done over 20 months, was based on state Department of Social and Health Services child-death reports, Child Protective Services referrals, police reports, court records, death certificates, interviews and standards of “preventability” developed in Colorado and Oregon.
It found that a record 112 children died in 1995 while under the watch of state social workers or shortly thereafter. That’s up from 44 such deaths in 1991, the newspaper said.
Of the 1995 deaths, at least 52 were of children who were in open case files in Child Protective Services. The rest had received attention from that agency, Child Welfare Services or Family Reconciliation Services within a year of their deaths or had lived in state-licensed care such as foster homes.
The 1995 death rate for children with open CPS case files was 2.5 per 1,000 compared with 0.6 deaths per 1,000 for children living in homes without open CPS case files.
Jeff Norman, a CPS official in Seattle who has studied child deaths, said he would expect a higher rate of child deaths on CPS caseloads, but he said he was surprised it was so much higher.
“It really makes you wonder how this occurs and what can be done for prevention,” Norman said.
But Rosie Oreskovich, DSHS assistant secretary for children and family services, said she was not surprised at the record numbers. She blamed more violence, drug abuse and better reporting of child deaths for the increase.
“The people CPS deals with are the most high-risk, vulnerable people that are there,” Oreskovich said.
According to DSHS’ own records, 17 of the 112 deaths last year were related directly to abuse or neglect by caretakers or family members. Of those, only about half resulted in prosecutions.
Particularly common, The Seattle Times said, are cases in which parenting decisions might have contributed to deaths, but the cases are labeled “accidents.” The newspaper gave some examples:
A Mountlake Terrace, Wash., woman already had lost two children when her 6-year-old daughter ran in front of a car in May 1995 and was killed.
Six complaints of abuse and neglect already had been filed by Child Protective Services against the mother, and officials suspected she had been criminally negligent in this case. But the death was ruled an accident, and the woman’s remaining two children were left with her.
In Bremerton last December, a 7-year-old boy was killed in a car crash with his mother behind the wheel. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt. The mother, who previously had been reported to Child Protective Services for substance abuse, was prosecuted for vehicular homicide but was acquitted. CPS closed the case as an accident and left two other children in her care.
Social workers might have prevented some of the deaths, The Seattle Times said, adding that many of the children previously had been reported to authorities as being in dangerous situations. Some examples:
In Seattle, CPS caseworkers left two toddlers in their crack-addicted mother’s house despite nine validated complaints of neglect and abuse against her. One of the children, a 21-month-old boy, drowned in a neighbor’s pool in January 1995 while his mother was sleeping off a cocaine binge.
A 3-month-old girl suffocated in Spokane in February 1995 when her mother fell asleep on a couch and then rolled on top of her. “I guess I picked a bad night to get drunk,” the mother reportedly told a friend. The state had fielded eight complaints in six years about substance abuse in the family, but it had pulled services from the home a month before the baby’s death.
The Times also cited several reasons why so many children are dying under the nose of state workers:
Lack of resources. State agencies were swamped last year with 76,342 complaints of child abuse or neglect. The average workload was 35 active cases per CPS social worker, double the number suggested by the Child Welfare League, an association of public and non-profit children’s agencies.
Family-preservation movement. Washington law was changed after the 1986 beating death of 3-year-old Eli Creekmore of Everett by his father. It now says “the best interests of the child” are more important than “family preservation.”
But some of the deaths last year and interviews with CPS workers show social workers are increasingly reluctant to remove a child from a home. Pro-family groups are lobbying in Olympia and Washington, D.C., to narrow the definition of child abuse and cut the powers of Child Protective Services.
Lack of review. The state looks into some but not all deaths of children under its care. When deaths are investigated, DSHS uses at least five different forms in different parts of the state.
Resistance by DSHS to media requests to reveal the identities of families whose children have died under state workers’ watch. The state says it could lose $54 million in federal funding if it releases any information about DSHS clients. But other states are much more open with detailed information about child deaths.
Inadequate investigation. The word “cursory” comes up often on reports describing police investigations of the deaths of children. Despite some improvements in recent years, Child Protective Services and police still don’t communicate in the early hours of many cases.
Lack of prosecution. Fewer than a dozen people were prosecuted for child abuse in the deaths of children in Washington last year. There were no prosecutions for fatal acts of neglect.
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