In one sense, the progress we have made in protecting our children has been remarkable. Advances in technology and medicine over the last century have saved countless lives, and countless more have benefited from an array of charitable and government programs.
In another sense, our nation is still not doing enough for those who go to bed neglected or abused or who, in the worst cases, never live to see another night.
As this year's legislative session gets underway, the General Assembly once again faces a long agenda and a short time frame. While not downplaying the many other important issues we must address, I believe it is imperative that we focus on one in particular: Enacting most if not all of the recommendations included in last month's report from the state's Child Fatality and Near-Fatality External Review Panel.
For more than two years now, this dedicated group has taken on the sad but very much necessary task of reviewing those cases in which children across Kentucky died or were severely injured by those caring for them. In the 2013 fiscal year alone, more than 100 children — about two a week — fell in one of these categories.
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Not surprisingly, there are some common threads binding these tragedies. Those range from substance abuse and domestic violence to gaps in communication between state and local agencies that work to protect children and prosecute abusers.
The panel offered about a dozen common-sense ideas that would make an immediate and profound difference. Some can be done relatively quickly, such as studying caseloads of front-line social workers to see what improvements can be made and conducting a statewide campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of such unsafe sleep practices as sharing a bed with young children. According to the panel's report, this type of activity was the chief factor in nine of the fatalities studied.
A similar statewide approach could better help first-time parents learn how to soothe crying babies and to be more aware of the dangers of shaking a young child. The General Assembly took action in that area last year by requiring more training to help physicians better spot signs of pediatric head trauma.
Increasing access to mental-health services for caregivers determined to be at high risk is another suggestion from the panel. The state has long offered voluntary help to new parents through its HANDS or Health Access Nurturing Development Services program, so one option could be building on the success we have seen in this area.
As a retired family consumer science county extension agent, I also believe strongly that the highly respected statewide network of county extension offices could also play a larger role in developing the parenting skills of those with high-risk behaviors.
Some of the panel's proposals are more far-reaching but certainly deserve to be considered. That includes drug-testing those whose children die unexpectedly in their care and lifting some of the secrecy in abuse and neglect cases, to ensure everything that can be done is being done to keep children from harm.
Each month, it seems, horrific stories of abuse make headlines, and we know there are thousands of other needlessly tragic cases that diminish the future for us all.
The time has come for Kentucky to take a major step forward in reducing these numbing statistics. The Child Fatality and Near Fatality External Review Panel has given us a blueprint to follow; now, it's up to the General Assembly to make it a reality. We — and the children counting on us — don't have time to waste.