Wednesday, October 28, 2009

ranks 4th in child-abuse death rate

A national report released Wednesday shows 16 Nebraska children died from abuse or neglect in 2007, placing the state fourth in the country in the rate of those deaths.

Between 2001 and 2007, 86 Nebraska children died from abuse or neglect, according to a report from the nonprofit Every Child Matters.

The report also showed Nebraska ranked 13th in per capita spending to address abuse and neglect, with a $166 million child welfare budget.

The report said the state substantiated 4,108 cases of child abuse and neglect in 2007, although the state put that number at 2,894.

Todd Reckling, director of Children and Family Services, couldn't verify the accuracy of the Every Child Matters report.

But he said any child death is one too many. They are all heartfelt, he added, and the state tries to learn from each one to prevent future deaths.

Recent records from the state Department of Health and Human Services showed the state sometimes has prior contact with the parents of children who die.

In a six-week period this year between June 21 and Aug. 2, for example, there were at least seven deaths in which Child Protective Services was previously involved. In some cases, families had more than 10 prior reports filed with CPS.

The children in the six-week period ranged in age from 2 months to 14 years. Three were infants, two were toddlers and two older children.

One was Michael Belitz, 12, whose decomposed body was found in the bathtub of his north Omaha home, his hands and feet bound with duct tape.

Family members had reported their concerns to HHS before his death, and his mother, who has been charged with his murder, had left messages with a state caseworker earlier in the year seeking help.

In one of the infant deaths, co-sleeping with an adult was a factor. One toddler died in the family's pool, and a 14-year-old was killed in a rollover crash in a truck he had taken without permission.

In June, the state's Child Death Review Team issued a report of deaths in 2005 and 2006. During that time, 16 children died from child abuse or neglect. Ten were infants.

Among those deaths, four infants died from shaken baby syndrome. Nine died from blunt force trauma.

Five additional deaths were attributed to caretaker neglect, including three cases resulting from guardians' lack of supervision and attention to a child in a bath or pool.

To address abuse and neglect, Reckling said, the state teams with other agencies for such programs as home visitation by public health nurses or social workers, and Project Harmony, which coordinates child abuse assessment and investigation with law enforcement and the courts.

The state also sponsors public service campaigns to alert people to recognize and report abuse.

And the state Legislature this year expanded the child health insurance program to cover more children.

Kathy Bigsby Moore, director of Voices for Children in Nebraska, said everyone should pay attention to child safety, to ensure agencies are responding, that there are sufficient mental health programs for parents and that lawmakers and state administrators are reacting.

The economy will drive spending decisions in the upcoming special session of the Legislature and in the regular session that begins in January, Moore said.

Policymakers should connect the state's child deaths to the need for good decisions about child welfare reform and spending, and programs to prevent deaths, she said.

Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform who spoke recently in Omaha, criticized the Every Child Matters report, calling it hype and hysteria, even if well-intentioned.

Seventy-seven percent of child abuse allegations already turn out to be false, and many more involve cases in which poverty is confused with neglect, he said.

And yet, Every Child Matters wants to start still another campaign urging every American to turn in his or her neighbor based on the slightest suspicion of maltreatment.

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