Substantiated reports of child abuse and neglect in Kentucky continued to increase last fiscal year, with substance abuse remaining a leading cause of the problem, according to the latest state report on the issue.
The report said the number of deaths caused by abuse and neglect decreased. However, the number could go up as state officials complete pending investigations or receive more information.
The statistics were included in an annual report the Cabinet for Health and Family Services must give the legislature by September on childhood deaths and serious injuries caused by physical abuse or neglect.
The report makes clear more needs to be done to protect children, said Bill Smithwick, who is involved in an initiative to eradicate child abuse and neglect in Jefferson County.
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The report, submitted this month, covered state fiscal 2014, from July 1, 2013, through June 30.
Cabinet workers investigate tens of thousands of reports of abuse and neglect annually. In 2014, they substantiated abuse and neglect in 12,120 reports involving 19,407 children. That number was up from 11,288 reports involving 17,884 children in 2013, and from 9,477 reports in 2010, according to the report to the legislature.
The report said abuse or neglect was substantiated in 12 deaths and 29 near-deaths in 2014, down from 22 deaths and 46 near-deaths in fiscal 2013. Over the last several years, however, the number of fatalities cited annually has been increased in subsequent reports. The cabinet puts the revised number in its next report.
The 2012 report listed 22 child-abuse and neglect deaths, but that number was listed as 32 in the new report. The 2011 report initially cited 18 deaths, but the new report said 31 children died that year because of abuse or neglect.
The initiative in which Smithwick is involved, called Face It, funded by Kosair Charities, issued a news release Wednesday commending the cabinet for tracking the information in a consistent format to allow year-to-year comparisons. However, the initiative would like to see the deadline for the report pushed back so more pending cases could be resolved and included, as well as information on the number of pending cases.
The cabinet report said that over the five-year period ending in mid-2014, there were 350 child deaths caused by abuse or neglect.
The cabinet had had prior involvement with 208 of those children. The report provided details for those cases, such as the age and race of the victims, the people who hit or neglected them and the factors involved.
For instance, 58 percent of the 208 children killed or injured were boys; 78 percent of the victims were white; a parent was the perpetrator in 77 percent of the cases; and 94 percent of the victims were age 4 or under.
In the physical-abuse cases, the top cause of death or injury was head trauma, at 49 percent. In the neglect cases, caregivers impaired by substance abuse was the biggest problem, followed by kids overdosing on drugs they found and medical neglect.
Smithwick said many factors play a role in child abuse and neglect, including poverty and addiction, though abuse and neglect is not limited to people who are poor or on drugs. The report also identified mental-health problems and family violence as key risk factors.
The cabinet said in the report that it has taken a number of steps to get a better understanding of fatal and near-fatal abuse and neglect cases and try to better protect children. Among other things, the cabinet provided more training in 2014 for workers; put in a new assessment tool for investigations; improved internal reviews of cases involving deaths and serious injuries; and started doing internal reviews in more cases even if abuse and neglect were not substantiated as the cause.
Smithwick said that while some of the numbers in the report are not good news, he thinks there is progress on the problem, including greater attention to it and more knowledge about the causes.
Another positive development is the state panel set up in 2010 to provide independent review of all deaths and near deaths and recommend improvements in dealing with the problem, he said. Gov. Steve Beshear created the panel in 2012 in the wake of reports by the Herald-Leader and other newspapers that found problems in how the cabinet had handled some cases involving deaths and injuries, including not conducting required reviews and not documenting comprehensive internal inquiries.
The cabinet said in its annual report that it does all required reviews.