The Office of the Child Advocate is investigating the deaths this year of nine children whose families have had recent contact with the Department of Children and Families.
Sarah Healy Eagan, the state child advocate, released a statement on the child fatalities Tuesday. Since January, 11 children whose families have been involved with DCF have died. Eagan’s office will review nine of those cases, while preliminary reviews suggest two others were attributable to natural causes.
Eagan, who would not discuss the specifics of the cases under review, said the children in question were strikingly young and died from a handful of causes.
“These children, mostly infants and toddlers, died from what appear to be a variety of causes, including a car accident, asphyxiation, possible unsafe sleeping conditions, and child abuse,” the statement said. “At least two of the infants were allegedly killed by a caregiver.”
In her statement, Eagan cautioned against drawing the conclusion that the child welfare system has failed based on the death of a child whose family was involved with the agency. Children sometimes come to DCF’s attention because of abuse and neglect that are often manifestations of other problems like substance abuse, domestic abuse, and mental health issues, she said.
“DCF cannot solve those problems unilaterally,” she said. “They do not belong solely to the department, they belong collectively to our public health system. It must be a shared responsibility.”
In a statement, DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt said the deaths were “tragic” and are felt deeply at the department, but should not be viewed as evidence the agency has not made progress on new approaches to serving the more than 70,000 children it works with every year.
“Even one child death is unacceptable and tragic, and we must take very seriously the responsibility to hold ourselves accountable. We have no reason, however, to believe that this nationally-recognized strengths-based approach has placed children in danger,” he said.
Five months into the year, it is difficult to compare the nine cases already under review in 2014 to previous years. The Office of the Child Advocate has not tracked whether previous child fatalities occurred in families involved with DCF.
However, in a roughly three-year period between January 2001 and February 2014, the department reported the deaths of 50 children in families involved with the agency at the time of their death. The number, which excludes deaths based on medical conditions, breaks down to an average of between 16 and 17 deaths per year.
Eagan said the recent fatalities were evidence that the agency needs to look closely at workforce and quality assurance issues. The agency has worked at keeping more children in their homes rather than removing them and placing them in foster care. In the statement, Eagan called these efforts a positive transformation similar to others engaged in by child welfare agencies throughout the country.
“Family preservation work necessitates tolerating more risk in the family unit. But the death of any child involved with state systems must be closely examined to determine how effective our safety net is for children,” the Tuesday statement from Eagan’s office said.
The 11 children that the department was involved with represent about one-sixth of the total child fatalities reported to the child advocate so far this year. About half of the 60 total deaths were attributable to natural deaths like life-threatening illnesses or complications from medical conditions.
The Office of the Child Advocate is finalizing a more detailed report on all the child fatalities that occurred in 2013 as well as recommendations for preventing child deaths, Eagan said. She decided to release Tuesday’s information based on inquiries from the news media and families, she said.
“It’s so important to periodically pull back the curtain and look at the vulnerability of infants and toddlers and examine what the response needs to be from state and local governments,” she said.