FRANKFORT — At least 22 Kentucky children died in the past year as a result of abuse and neglect, according to a state report released Friday.
The Cabinet for Health and Family Services released its annual report on child abuse deaths a day before it is required by state law to submit the report to the state legislature.
The cabinet has been criticized by child advocates and legislators in the past for failing to turn in the annual report on time. In 2011, the report was not delivered to the legislature until December. In 2010, the cabinet sent the report in November.
The report notes that the number of deaths attributed to abuse or neglect in the fiscal year that ended June 30 could increase as pending investigations are finalized or new information about a death comes to light.
In its 2011 report, for example, the cabinet counted only 18 deaths as a result of abuse and neglect. The 2012 report lists 31 child abuse deaths for fiscal year 2011. There were 36 child abuse deaths in 2010; 29 in 2009; and 30 in 2008, according to the latest report.
Child advocates said a downward decline in the number of child abuse deaths is good news, but 22 deaths is still too many.
"We should all celebrate that trend-line while at the same time remembering that the death of a single child is still too many for us to ever tolerate," said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a Louisville-based non-profit. "Secondly, given the cabinet's track record of blatant disregard for legally required deadlines, the fact that the report was issued on time and in a comprehensive manner should be noted and commended."
Jill Midkiff, a spokeswoman for the cabinet, said the cabinet was "very aware of the deadline and were determined to meet it."
In addition to the number of children who died as a result of abuse or neglect, the report notes that 33 children were "nearly killed" or sustained life-threatening injuries as a result of abuse in the past year. Of the 55 children who were killed or nearly killed, child-protection workers had previous contact with the family in 30 of the cases.
In total, 15,699 Kentucky children were abused or neglected in 2012.
The number of reports of suspected child abuse or neglect continues to climb. In fiscal year 2012, there were 34,706 reports of child abuse and neglect, compared to 30,964 in 2008.
The number of reports that social workers substantiate as abuse and neglect is at a four-year high, the report shows. In 2012, 9,935 reports of abuse and neglect were substantiated, up from 9,595 in 2011. Many of those reports involve multiple children.
Over the past five years, there have been 386 deaths and near-deaths of children as a result of abuse. Of those cases, the cabinet had prior contact in 214 instances. The cabinet analyzed characteristics of the 214 children and found that the majority were white — 79 percent — and male — 57 percent.
The vast majority of perpetrators in the 214 cases were biological parents of the child. Mothers were perpetrators in 21 percent of cases, fathers were perpetrators in 17 percent of cases and both parents were culpable in 20 percent of cases. A parent's boyfriend or girlfriend was listed as the perpetrator 10 percent of the time.
Brooks said the report shows that more still needs to be done to help Kentucky children.
"The real import of this report should be about next steps," Brooks said. "What are we going to tackle in both policy and practice to ensure that every kid in Kentucky is protected from abuse and neglect?"
This year, Gov. Steve Beshear created an external panel of 17 experts to review all child deaths and near-deaths that stem from abuse or neglect. That panel — which has not met yet — is charged with examining such cases and making recommendations for policy changes and improvements.
In addition, Beshear proposed and the legislature approved additional money for more front-line social workers.
But Brooks said the legislature can make further improvements when it returns for the 2013 legislative session in January.
"Legislative leaders can make a real difference in this arena as early as 2013 through policy improvements in areas such as ensuring that medical personnel are included in mandated training to better spot signs of abuse," Brooks said.