At close to 5 p.m. on New Year's Eve, state officials released the latest child fatality report, placing a fitting punctuation mark on a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year.
While the deaths reported all occurred before 2020, they emphasize a concern for what happened under the COVID-19 lockdown last year. Consider the observation of the Indiana Department of Child Services that “caregiver stressors were determined to play” a role in some of the 61 deaths attributed to abuse or neglect in 2019.
“Income, unemployment and substance abuse were frequently cited as stress factors among caregivers,” according to the report. That's without the added stress of a pandemic.
Dee Szyndrowski, CEO of Scan Inc., the region's child abuse prevention agency, said she's worried about how children have been affected over the past year. Substance abuse and economic struggle were issues noted in the families SCAN serves, she said in an email.
The 2019 fatality report reveals those issues were a problem even before COVID-related stresses, with multiple deaths linked to drug and alcohol abuse. One case, described in heartbreaking detail, reports the death of a month-old girl: “On the night prior to the child's death, the mother placed the child to sleep on an adult bed and then went downstairs with the father. The mother and father drank alcohol and smoked marijuana until the early morning hours before falling asleep downstairs. When the mother woke up, she found the child face down on a plastic bag on the floor of the parents' bedroom. The parents reported the child must have fallen off of the adult bed, which was over a foot off the ground, and then crawled over to the plastic bag, which was 11 feet away. The parents submitted to drug screens and tested positive for THC.”
In another neglect case, a 2-year-old boy died of a gunshot wound. The mother left her loaded handgun on top of a toy box near the bed, and the child shot himself while unattended. The handgun did not have a safety mechanism, according to the state report.
Szyndrowski said child abuse and neglect reports to the DCS hotline have decreased during the pandemic.
“My thoughts on this are twofold,” she wrote. “One, our children were not seen in places that tend to make reports to the hotline: schools, aftercare programs, etc. However, the state did provide additional dollars to support their largest prevention program, known as Community Partners. For the regions that SCAN serves, we were able to partner with other community agencies to provide an additional $1 million of emergency support for families. This funding was distributed to assist with the effects of the pandemic.”
Prevention efforts are essential. The fatality report shows 70% of the 2019 deaths occurred in the child's own home. With schools and child-care settings closed by COVID-19, more children are at home for long, uninterrupted periods – in some cases with parents and caregivers under great stress.
“Parenting is the hardest job on a good day,” Szyndrowski wrote. “Add the stressors of a pandemic, extenuating circumstances of substance abuse, insufficient income, past history of being a victim of abuse and neglect and recovering from illnesses – all of which were cited in the report. Additionally, these are all factors that lead to children being at risk for abuse and neglect.”
The SCAN director praised the Department of Child Services for its responsiveness.
“They have reached out to partner with providers, listened to our needs to support children and families, worked alongside of us,” she wrote. “I hope this continues in the future since we all share the same mission: protect children, prepare parents and strengthen families.
Szyndrowski offers advice for all:
“If you're a family member of a parent right now, I encourage you to touch base with parents,” she wrote. “Reach out if you see something is 'off' in a home, address the situation and call for help! SCAN's Prevention Programs offer support for families before an instance of abuse or neglect occurs. If someone feels overwhelmed or stressed with their parenting load right now, SCAN can help.”
Next December, the 2020 child fatality report will reveal the pandemic's saddest outcome. Indiana children need all of us to lend eyes and ears for their protection.
If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call the Indiana Department of Child Services' Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at (800) 800-5556 today. It is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including weekends and holidays. You can report abuse and neglect anonymously.
Read the report
Go to on.jg.net/38kmF4E