After declining for the last two years, the child fatality rate in Gila County skyrocketed by 86 percent last year.
Worse still, Gila County has one of the highest childhood death rates in the state, with one child death per 4,770 people. Suffocation by co-sleeping, neglect as a result of substance abuse, suicides and firearm deaths contributed to the alarming increase.
“One of the key findings in this year’s report was a 9 percent increase in accidental deaths from 2016 to 2017,” wrote Mary Ellen Rimsza, the chair of the Child Fatality Review Team. “The Arizona Child Fatality Review Program local teams determined that 42 percent could have been prevented.”
Each county has a Child Fatality Review Committee that works behind the scenes each time a child dies to determine the cause.
One of the members of the local Gila County Child Fatality Review, nurse Kathleen Kelly, said in Gila County the group is made up of first responders, law enforcement, shelter and safe house personnel, schoolteachers, counselors, medical professionals and coroners.
“We come together to find ways to educate, assist families, and be a pro-active network affecting the future lives and safety of our children,” she said.
Kelly explained some of the reasons for the increase in local deaths.
“The deaths from unsafe sleeping, from suicides and firearms were up in 2017,” she said.
Kelly lamented the increase in suffocation deaths among infants.
“The news usually covers a motor vehicle crash or a drowning death. But we won’t hear about your neighbors who lost their baby to a suffocation,” she said.
Kelly said not only did Gila County infants suffer, but also more infants across the state died due to suffocation.
“The deaths of 83 Arizona infants were connected to unsafe sleeping and accounted for nearly a quarter of all preventable child fatalities in 2017,” said Kelly. “A big part of this problem is the silence that occurs after it happens. Nobody talks about it, particularly if they understand that maybe it could have been prevented ... these are areas that we don’t like to talk about, but if we don’t develop a language to address these very serious issues, we are part of the problem.”
Kelly said families need to avoid unsafe sleeping environments such as sharing a bed with siblings or adults and lack of supervision.
“I have even reviewed a death where the family dog jumped up on the couch and suffocated the baby,” said Kelly. “Parents are often unaware that infants are not able to handle their airways being covered by a blanket or a parent’s arm and that they can die very quickly.”
Kelly said most of the children under the age of 5 who made it into the child fatality review report, died because of drugs or alcohol.
“Child fatalities due to maltreatment accounted for 24 percent of all preventable deaths among children and most of the children who died were under 5 years of age,” she said. “Substance abuse was a factor in most of those deaths. Basically when people are substance users they are not capable of being good parents.”
But the most tragic increase in child deaths had to be suicides.
“Fifty children (in Arizona) took their own lives in 2017,” said Kelly. “In the six years between 2012 and 2017 the child suicide rate in Arizona increased significantly.”
In fact, the suicide rate has increased 76 percent in those six years with three children out of 100,000 taking their own lives in 2017.
Here in Gila County, Kelly said she thinks about the reasons children from the age of 11 to 17 decide to take their own lives — reasons the Child Fatality Review Committee often doesn’t know based on the police reports.
“Contributing factors to the suicide rate such as bullying, mental health problems and family discord often aren’t available to investigators reviewing the deaths.”
She said she has found some chillingly revealing details simply from reading Facebook and other social media accounts of the teenagers.
“Social media, texting, and internet communications from the child’s friends can paint a whole picture of what happened leading up to the choice a child makes to take their own life.”
Kelly said some of the more alarming messages she has read talk about suicide as a way to solve problems.
“(Some) even brag about how cool they will look to their friends,” she said.
Worse yet, the epidemic of cyber bullying creeps into teenagers’ homes. They cannot escape the relentless attacks by classmates if they have a phone.
“In this divisive time, kids are seeing their adult role models using freedom of speech to express their political views by demonizing others and alienating those who think differently than they do,” she said.
Kelly said parents could help their teens by watching for signs of depression, the use of drugs or alcohol.
“Parents need to get guns away and try to get these children into services,” she said.
Kelly believes adults need to hear what teenagers have to say about the issues they face.
“I had the privilege of talking to some awesome kids from middle school (aged 11 to 13),” she said. “They were eloquent and showed more insight than a lot of adults ... they need to be heard and they need to have a voice ... I think our children are a significant missing link in the journey to a better future. We need to listen and develop a better language to talk about what is happening in our world with integrity, honesty and believe me, with courage to come together for all of our future.”