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We don’t really know how many children die from abuse in Alabama each year

We don’t really know how many children die from abuse in Alabama each year

Picture of Anna Claire Vollers
[Photo by Joe Szilagyi via Flickr.]
(Photo: Joe Szilagyi/ Flickr)

There’s no complete data on the number of children who’ve died as the result of child abuse and neglect in Alabama.

We know that nearly 11,000 Alabama children were involved in reports of abuse or neglect last year. We know that the state is supposed to report certain data on child abuse fatalities and near fatalities to remain compliant with federal law.

We know these children are more likely to be killed before their first birthdays. They die from blunt force trauma, from unsafe sleeping environments, from fire. They’re killed by their mothers, fathers, mothers’ boyfriends, caregivers.

And yet for many of them, we still have an incomplete picture – in some cases no picture at all – of the circumstances that ended their lives.

Who was responsible? Are those people held to account, and how often? What role does child protective services play in the child’s life prior to the death? What role could or should it play? Are there differences in circumstances surrounding urban and rural child abuse fatalities? How might keeping children safe look different in rural and urban communities?

An emotionally charged issue like child fatalities can be a compelling entry point into a larger story about the ways in which poverty affects children in both rural and urban communities, and how solutions might be tailored to those different needs.

This project, Alabama’s Hidden Children, will examine child abuse deaths and near-deaths over a five-year span to gain a better understanding of how poverty contributes to the maltreatment of children in communities across the state.

Incomplete data

States are required to keep track of certain data surrounding child abuse fatalities under the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team and ProPublica have been working for more than a year to build a national database of this data. My team at Reckon by AL.com has partnered with these organizations to gather and process the data for Alabama.

We’ve gotten some of the child fatality data piecemeal from state agencies. We’ve supplemented it with autopsy reports, news articles and other materials to try to create a more complete picture of how and why those children died.

But the data we have is incomplete and raises nearly as many questions as it answers. One set from the state shows about 81 child fatalities due to abuse or neglect between 2011-2016. Another shows 140 deaths for the same time period. On the list of 140 deaths, only 10 children are listed has having a prior child abuse or neglect investigation from child protective services — could that truly be an accurate number?

How is it that we don’t know exactly how many children die each year from abuse or neglect?

Patterns and solutions

For the 2018 Data Fellowship, I’ll compile and analyze data to look for patterns and potential solutions. I’ll talk with the stakeholders who could create change.

My initial work will involve building the most complete and accurate database possible of child fatalities and near-fatalities that resulted from abuse and neglect from 2011-2015 in Alabama. It will likely require more records requests, as well as conversations with state agencies involved in the data collection.

While I don’t want to draw conclusions without all the data, I anticipate a major part of the project will focus on connections between these children and child protective services and law enforcement. This should include not just data collection, but interviews with caseworkers and agency leaders.

Availability of quality caregivers for low-income families is an important piece of the puzzle. The minimum wage hasn’t risen in Alabama in a decade. With most mothers in Alabama working, quality child care has become a necessity, but it’s expensive. There’s a long wait for child care subsidies in many counties, and precious few day care options, particularly in rural areas. This situation leads some mothers to rely on a boyfriend, neighbor or relative for child care. In more than a dozen fatality cases I’ve already reviewed, that caregiver is the one responsible for the child’s death.

Patterns in the data can indicate where and when children are most vulnerable. I plan to examine how state agencies and community partners might (and have, in other states) address the root causes behind child abuse fatalities and how those solutions may look different depending on whether they’re in rural or urban areas.

Throughout the process, I’ll be looking for specific cases that provide flesh-and-blood examples of key issues surrounding child abuse fatalities. I want to reach out to those families, their caseworkers and others who can help us understand how things could have gone differently. Could children in similar situations be saved?

Larger implications

The thread running through all of this is how poverty impacts the maltreatment of children. Studies have shown that areas with high levels of poverty have disproportionately high rates of child abuse fatalities and near-fatalities.

Alabama’s child poverty rate has steadily increased over the past two decades. In 2016, more than a quarter of Alabama children lived in poverty. The youngest kids fare the worst: Nearly a third of Alabama children under age 5 live in poverty.

They already face an uphill battle when it comes to education, economic prospects and health outcomes. It’s vital that we more thoroughly understand our children’s lives and circumstances so we can keep them as safe as possible.

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