Kentucky Child Abuse Deaths Lower in 2013

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Fewer Kentucky children died as a result of abuse and neglect in a 2012-2013 evaluation period than in the 2011-2012 period, despite an increase in reported cases of abuse and neglect, the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) reports.

According to reports, nine children lost their lives due to abuse or neglect in the 2012-2013 reporting period, compared with 32 children in the previous one-year period. Reports of near-fatalities also declined between the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 evaluation periods, falling from 44 to 27 reports, according to the CHFS. The number of cases of near-fatalities from abuse or neglect among those with prior state contact dropped from 28 to 17. According to Kentucky and the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, a near-fatality is a physician-certified serious or critical injury.

However, these statistics may not be significant, according to Charles Baker, a professor at the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work. According to Baker, child deaths and near-deaths resulting from abuse or neglect were a “minor statistical phenomenon,” making it difficult to draw conclusions. In fact, the numbers may divert attention away from much more frequent forms of child abuse and neglect, what he calls “routine cases of abuse and neglect.”

“We are continuing to focus on trying to catch people who have done wrong, [who] abused kids and neglected kids,” he said. “But we’re not doing anything about trying to prevent that. Parenting is a very difficult job, and we are not providing support for parents.”

In 2013, some 5,000 more reports meeting investigation criteria were filed than in 2012, increasing the total state population of children involved in abuse or neglect cases by nearly 7,000. Substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect totaled more than 11,000 in 2013, an increase of more than 1,000 cases since 2012.

Tina Webb, assistant director of the Division for Protection and Permanency, said the data is preliminary and should be interpreted cautiously.  

“We’ve had a lot of reports that came in the months of May and June,” she said. “And those cases take a minimum of eight weeks to complete.”

The reports are filed at the end of the state’s fiscal year, which falls in the middle of summer, so in many instances, case findings cannot be finalized until after the annual report is released, Webb said.

About two-thirds of the cases the agency investigated, Webb said, were neglect-related, and one-third were either physical or sexual abuse-related. A majority of the victims documented in the new report were between the ages of 0 and 4. Most child deaths were attributed to physical abuse, she said.

Webb said meeting Kentucky’s child welfare needs is even more difficult because of a lack of state resources.

“Our agency alone has taken significant budget cuts over the last eight years, just in the terms of services we provide to families,” she said.

The budget cuts worry Baker.

“The cuts in services that the state government, the legislature and the governor felt like they needed to make in order to balance the budget, is going to eventually cause the situation to deteriorate,” he said.

Nevertheless, Webb remains optimistic that child welfare is improving in Kentucky. “We have been really looking at these cases in-depth for a long time, “she said, “and I think we’re starting to really understand the dynamics that underpin these cases.”