TALLAHASSEE — The state panel charged with reviewing child deaths set an ambitious agenda Thursday against a tight deadline in hopes of reducing as many child deaths as possible.
Members of the Child Abuse Death Review Committee met in Tampa to plan their 2014 annual report, the first one the panel will submit since a sweeping new child-welfare law took effect July 1.
The law (SB 1666) followed a series of media reports about child deaths due to abuse and neglect. It requires the committee to review all child deaths that have been reported to the state abuse hotline and have been accepted for investigation.
That means the Child Abuse Death Review Committee, which is housed at the Department of Health, will examine roughly 432 cases this year, compared to 118 last year.
On Thursday, the panel — meeting for just the second time in 2014 — pushed for a new look at recommendations contained in previous reports.
The group also agreed to recommend a multi-year strategy for reducing the top three causes of child abuse and neglect deaths — drowning and what are called unsafe sleep and un-inflicted trauma deaths, in which children suffocate while sleeping with adults or die of injuries whose origin is not clear.
Panel member Carol Lilly, the medical director of a child protection team at the University of South Florida, urged the group to develop a strategic plan and measure its outcomes.
“I don’t see us continuing to make recommendations without having a plan and measurable objectives,” Lilly said. “I don’t see us going anywhere if we don’t have something where we can say, ‘OK, it didn’t work this way. We’ve got to figure out … what else to try.’ “
In 1999, the Legislature created the Child Abuse Death Review Committee to pore over the facts of child deaths from maltreatment and to look for trends. The state could then, for instance, follow up on a spate of drowning deaths with a public-awareness campaign to warn against leaving children unattended near bodies of water.
However, Jane Johnson, chief of staff at the Department of Children and Families, said such trends change, and public education campaigns must keep pace.
“It seems that public awareness has had an impact on abuse, because we’re seeing a lot less abuse than neglect,” Johnson said. “And also, I think narcotics — cocaine, you know, the crack era, I think caused a lot of abusive deaths. (But) now that opiates are the drug of choice, parents are falling asleep and suffocating their children, or neglecting them and falling asleep on the couch, and they walk outside and drown in the canal.”
For years, the death-review panel has recommended public-awareness campaigns, and the Department of Children and Families has designed them to prevent other risks to small children.
“The fact that there’s more neglect deaths now than there are abuse deaths is hopeful, because it shows that we can actually attack a problem through the public awareness and get it to reduce,” Johnson said. “But now the problem has changed, and neglect is much more subtle and difficult.”
Not all child deaths, of course, are caused by maltreatment. The cause of a child’s death may require some digging, so the panel agreed to recommend more specific questions, such as whether the drowning occurred in a pool or a bathtub and whether anyone attempted to revive the child.
The panel is operating under a short time frame, with its draft report due Oct. 1 — moved up from Dec. 31 last year. That was done to complete the report in time for legislative committee hearings. But the early deadline also reduces the number of verified deaths that the panel is able to consider in its report, so the members recommended moving the due date each year to the following March 31. Forty child deaths from this year are still under investigation.