A new Child Fatality Prevention Report from the state health department documents the way 17 children known to the child welfare system died in 2019 and introduces two new initiatives to target causes of the fatalities.
The Department of Public Health and Human Services report covers deaths that were of children known to the child welfare system. That can mean anything from a report made about abuse concerns specific to a child or that the child was a sibling of a reported case.
It also includes an additional seven deaths of children whom the state's child protection system was not made aware of until after the fatality.
Among the deaths of children already known to the welfare system, five fatalities were caused by unsafe sleep for infants. Four died from medical-related conditions. Three died from abuse and neglect. The other deaths were drownings, a car accident, a firearm and sudden infant death syndrome.
Of the deaths not reported to the state Child and Family Services Division until after the fatality, 29% died from drowning. Another 29% died from abuse and neglect. The other causes of death were unsafe sleep and choking, while one death was undetermined.
The report released Wednesday highlights two initiatives aimed at promoting safe sleep and preventing child drownings.
One is the First Years Initiative, launched in 2018. It focuses on preventing abuse and neglect in very young children and has a focus on safe sleep, including distributing 1,500 cribs to families in 24 counties and on six reservations.
In 2017, there were seven fatalities from unsafe sleep compared to five last year.
“Not only were we able to blanket the state in cribs to almost 10% of infants and their families in the state, amplifying our past work by five-fold, we were also able to develop a safe sleep public education campaign that was designed for Montana families,” said Brie Oliver, executive director of the Montana coalition of Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies, in the report.
The state health department and the coalition also launched a public awareness campaign about safe sleep, including billboards, print media and online adverting.
While the number of deaths is up from last year, there was a 12% drop in fatalities of children under the age of 1 from 2017 to 2019.
In 2018 there were 12 children who died that CFSD was aware of and two fatalities where the first contact with protective services was after the death. The first fatality report done in Montana that covered a 16-month period from July 2015 to November 2016 found 14 child deaths.
The First Years Initiative has served 651 clients with home visiting since 2018. The service is voluntary and connects case workers and health professionals with pregnant women and new parents with at-home services that can lead to better pregnancy and child health outcomes.
In this year's report, among the deaths of children known to CPS, 10 of the children who died were under the age of 1. Four were between the ages of 1-5. One child was between 6-10 and the other two were between 11-18 years old. Thirteen were male and four were female.
To begin to address drowning deaths, the state health department is partnering with Fish, Wildlife & Parks on a "Kids Don't Float" campaign.
Some drowning deaths were outdoors, and there was also an indoor death in a bathtub where a child was left unattended.
Through the partnership, the health department is sponsoring 336 loaner life jackets to be placed at parks around the state near water.
When schools shut down in response to efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the state saw a drop in the number of calls into the child abuse and neglect hotline. Over the week of March 15, when schools were closed, the hotline received just 425 calls, compared to an average of 765 over a normal week.
The report said that by June, calls had increased following a public awareness campaign. Department Deputy Director Laura Smith said Tuesday that calls are now on trend with what's normal for summer when schools are out. The hotline is 1-866-820-KIDS (5437).
More than three-quarters of the deaths of children known to child protective services, or 13, happened when the child was in the care of their parents. Two deaths happened when a child was living with foster parents. One death was when the child was with a grandparent, while another was with a babysitter.
In the deaths where the first call to CFSD was after the death, four children were with their parents. Two were at day care, while one was with a family friend.
In just over half of the deaths of children known to CPS, there were no criminal charges. There were in 35% of the cases, and a decision is still pending for the rest of the deaths. There were no criminal charges in 86% of the deaths where CPS was not notified until after the fatality.
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