Both the number of children dying while under the care of Arizona’s Child Protective Services (CPS) and the number of child suicides in the state reached a six-year high, according to the 19th annual state report on child deaths.
Fortunately, the number of child deaths overall declined both statewide and in Gila County.
The number of child deaths in Gila County declined from 12 in 2010 to nine in 2011, but remained at about 1 percent of the total statewide.
Statewide in 2011, a total of 837 children died, down from 862 in 2010.
The Arizona Child Fatality Review Program collected data from hospitals, emergency departments, law enforcement, Child Protective Services, and other sources.
While the percentage of Arizona children who died due to abuse remained at 8 percent of the total (71 deaths in 2011), 34 of those cases involved a case in which CPS had either a past report or an open case.
Out of those 34 cases, 15 were still open at the time of the child’s death.
In comparison, last year’s child fatality report showed that out of 70 cases of death due to abuse, 18 had previous CPS intervention, with only five of the cases open at the time of death.
That is an increase of 66 percent in one year of open and ongoing CPS cases failing children.
While it is difficult to breach the privacy barriers of the CPS system to find out why more children are dying while under its care, a former local CPS caseworker has shared his perspective on what’s happening in the Rim Country to cause such a drastic change in the numbers.
The former caseworker said the lack of funding for caseworkers and resources to help troubled families remains the single biggest factor.
He said the hours, paperwork, low pay and emotional stress causes many CPS caseworkers to leave the job.
High turnover rates compound a lack of training in the myriad of laws that govern how to handle domestic abuse.
Moreover, even in cases of serious abuse, caseworkers often find they can offer no mental health and substance abuse services to families due to state cutbacks in the CPS budget. The caseworker said he could see how children die while in the midst of a CPS investigation simply because of the process.
To remove a child from a home, the caseworker must offer unquestionable evidence that a child is in immediate danger. Removing a child causes trauma, especially given the lack of local foster homes.
“Now, if there was immediate and irrefutable evidence (broken bones, etc.), you pull the kid,” he said. “But if it is the gray area, where the child refuses to disclose and there are no other strong indicators of danger, the child remains until you are able to develop your case.”
CPS and the state have set up bureaucratic hurdles to ensure the balance between protecting the child and the facts of the case. Tragically, children sometimes die while that investigator and his supervisor try to ferret out what is really going on.
“So there are real trade-offs. The investigator and the unit supervisor need to factor in what they know as fact, which is sometimes not very much, against ensuring the safety of the child — tough call,” said the former caseworker. “Or you yank every kid and make the office dysfunctional, hoping the next report which can’t be investigated does not result in a real tragedy.”
The child fatality report also documented a disturbing rise in child suicides, which rose a terrible 38 percent. A total of 38 Arizona children took their own lives in 2011, including a 7-year old. That marks the highest number of child suicides in six years.
The report said that 35 percent of the overall child deaths in Arizona were preventable, which does not include either the deaths of children under CPS care or suicides.