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Texas Fakes Child Death Numbers

January 23, 2015 permalink

Over the past five years Texas has reported a decrease in the number of child deaths caused by abuse and neglect. But an investigation by the Austin American-Statesman has shown that most of the decrease is accounted for by changes in classification. The reported deaths are only those subjectively classified as caused by abuse or neglect. Deaths not so classified remain unreported. The newspaper found that the number of unreported deaths has reached a level nearly equal to those reported.



Missed Signs, Fatal Consequences: Part 1

Publicly reported numbers don’t tell the whole story

Abuse-related fatalities only disclosed if mistreatment directly caused death, and case classification is inconsistent

Texas is not publicly reporting hundreds of abuse- and neglect-related child deaths each year, raising questions about the accuracy of the state’s official fatality count, an American-Statesman investigation into the state’s child protection system has found.

Between 2010 and 2014, the Department of Family and Protective Services did not publicly report 655 child abuse-related fatalities, even though the department confirmed that those children had been mistreated prior to their deaths. Because Child Protective Services caseworkers decided that mistreatment or abuse did not directly cause those fatalities, state law does not require the agency to publicly reveal those numbers.

Publicly reported vs. unreported deaths

State law does not require Child Protective Services to publicly report abuse- and neglect-related deaths if caseworkers decide that mistreatment did not directly cause those fatalities.

Source: Child Protective Services, Statesman research

Deaths in Texas CPS custody

Yet the rationale behind those classifications has been inconsistent. In some cases, for example, the state has assigned blame for co-sleeping or drowning deaths, meaning the fatality was at least partially caused by negligence or abuse. Those go on the publicly reported list. But numerous child deaths that occurred under similar circumstances are kept off the public list, with little explanation.

The way senior DFPS officials review such cases also tends to skew the number downward. Those reviewers check for accuracy for only those fatalities that caseworkers have already labeled as directly caused by abuse and neglect. Last year that review resulted in 10 cases being overturned, reducing the number on the final, publicly released list.

Yet deaths that field staff has concluded were not due directly to abuse or neglect don’t receive that extra level of attention. The result: The system is set up only to lower the annual number of children whose deaths were attributable to neglect or abuse and never to add to it.

The state’s accounting methods mean the public has no true idea how many children are dying in abuse-related circumstances. Names, ages and even causes of death are off-limits. CPS’ history with the family is also blocked, shielding the agency from external scrutiny into those cases.

Two sets of numbers

That stands in stark contrast to the way CPS must handle cases in which caseworkers rule that maltreatment directly killed a child. In those cases, a 2009 law requires the agency to provide the public with a detailed report on the case.

Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, who authored that law, said he was shocked that legislators were not being provided information on all of the abuse-related cases. “I’m speechless,” he said. “I want to know who these kids are. Every one of these kids has a name and has a story and would have had a life ahead of them.”

Family and Protective Services spokesman Patrick Crimmins say the agency isn’t trying to hide anything. The agency has followed state and federal laws, he said. And aggregate nonidentifying information — such as ages, genders and types of abuse and neglect — has always been available to anyone who wanted it. But until the American-Statesman, no one asked.

Because of the newspaper’s inquiry, the agency plans to publicly report those numbers in the future, Crimmins said. But legally, CPS cannot release details on individual cases.

Uresti said he intends to close that gap in the upcoming legislative session: “If there’s a loophole, we’re going to fix it unless someone can convince me why we should not know all the facts.”

Hidden category

At issue is how officials categorize the deaths of Texas children under the age of 17.

CPS investigates every potential abuse or neglect death reported to it. In the field, caseworkers decide if the child was abused or neglected and, if so, whether that maltreatment contributed to the death.

If CPS decides abuse killed the child, the fatality goes into the state’s official child abuse and neglect death count. Official numbers have not been released, but the agency says the tally for 2014 is tentatively 136.

But the agency has a separate way of classifying those cases in which abuse was found to be present but did not directly contribute to the death. According to tentative 2014 numbers, 125 child fatalities were categorized that way.

Yet it is not always clear why seemingly comparable deaths end up on different lists. For example, Crimmins said that one type of case that might not be included in the public fatality count is when a child riding a four-wheeler is killed. The failure to supervise the child would not necessarily be considered to have been directly connected to the death, he said.

But the American-Statesman analysis found three such fatalities in which a family member was blamed and so landed on the publicly disclosed list.

While CPS investigators are not specifically trained on how to classify child deaths, they employ the same general methods they use in all investigations, Crimmins said. “The worker does this by gathering as much information as possible about the circumstances of the death, including information gathered from medical or forensic examinations, photographs and the autopsy of the deceased child.”

Two other CPS employees, a supervisor and a child safety specialist, must approve the ruling.

Different death tallies

Advocates say the state is intentionally suppressing the number of child abuse deaths. By keeping those fatalities out of the public eye, officials can minimize the scope of the problem and demonstrate that the agency is reducing the number of child abuse-related fatalities, said Randy Burton, founder of the Houston-based Justice for Children.

“It’s an effort to play with the numbers to minimize their culpability,” he said.

And the publicly reported numbers have drastically decreased over the past five years. In 2009, the state reported 280 child abuse deaths. In 2014, CPS is tentatively reporting 136 child abuse deaths, a 51 percent decrease.

But when the reported and unreported fatalities are combined, the drop is only 25 percent.

While CPS boasts of its declining public death tally, officials say they don’t know why the numbers have dropped. At a conference hosted by the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities last year, John Specia, the commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services, speculated it could be connected to greater efforts to publicize the dangers of co-sleeping. Yet state numbers show that co-sleeping deaths have remained relatively stable since 2010 and actually increased in 2014.

Michael Petit, a commission member and president of Washington, D.C.-based Every Child Matters, says he is skeptical of Texas’ plummeting numbers. “If you can’t document cause and effect, then I don’t think you have anything,” he said.

Nationwide problem

Other child welfare agencies across the country have been accused of manipulating numbers to look better. In Florida, the Department of Child and Family Services has come under fire for not counting 96 children in its fatality numbers over a three-year period.

Experts say one reason for inconsistencies surrounding death tallies is that the definitions of abuse and neglect vary vastly across the country, leading to incomplete and inaccurate numbers of child abuse deaths. The federal government hasn’t helped, giving states little guidance on how to count and report such deaths in a uniform manner, Petit said.

Petit agrees that not all child deaths should be judged the same when it comes to blame. A drunk or high parent who accidentally rolls over and smothers a child while co-sleeping isn’t the same as a parent who is not under the influence and has no CPS history, he said.

But if the state cites someone for abuse or neglect in those cases, then that information needs to be made public to present a comprehensive picture of the problem, he said.

That’s what one Dallas-based child advocacy group, TexProtects, wants CPS to do. The group intends to ask legislators to change the law and make all of the information public.

Uresti said he supports the change because legislators need all the information they can get if they are to make long-lasting changes to the child welfare system.

“No one needs to hide from the facts,” he said. “Full disclosure and transparency: that’s the way we can help.”

Source: Austin American-Statesman