LOUISVILLE — During the past decade, nearly 270 Kentucky children died of abuse or neglect, and state officials already knew of or suspected problems in more than half the cases, a newspaper reported Sunday.
A longtime child advocate called the statistics "pretty alarming."
The Courier-Journal reported that during one recent 12-month period, 41 children died — the highest rate of any state, according to a report by the Every Child Matters Education Fund, a child advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.
In a six-month review of the problem, the Louisville newspaper found that child protection officials, day care workers and parents, friends and relatives missed signs of abuse such as suspicious bruising or were hesitant to act.
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The rate at which social workers substantiated child abuse and neglect has declined, while reports of abuse have soared, the newspaper reported.
Nine years ago, problems were substantiated in 27 percent of the reports received, compared with 12.5 percent this year, according to reports by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Social workers say that they don't have time to fully investigate cases or to follow up with families. Nor do they have money to provide the in-home assistance, drug testing and treatment that some families need.
Since 2008, the state has cut $51 million from programs such as child protection.
Many judges and critics think that secrecy within the child protection system protects it from scrutiny rather than protecting children.
Many child deaths could have been prevented had state social workers, physicians, day care workers, friends and relatives responded sooner and more aggressively to signs of abuse or neglect, the newspaper reported.
"It would be rare for a child to have never been abused and then be abused to the point of death," said Dr. Gerard Rabalais, chairman of the University of Louisville pediatrics department. "Much more typically, it's violence that escalates over time.
"There's time to find the perpetrators and stop it and intervene on the child's behalf."
The newspaper's investigation found that since 2000, Kentucky Child Protective Services officials have investigated reports of problems in cases of 149 of the 267 Kentucky children who subsequently died from abuse or neglect, according to the annual report on such deaths produced by the cabinet.
"That's pretty alarming," said David Richart, a consultant and longtime child advocate in Louisville. "Those are dangerous, ominous signs when you are already involved with the family or with the home."
Patricia Wilson, commissioner of social services for the cabinet, said she thinks the state's nearly 1,520 "front-line" social workers who handle child protection are hard-working and do a good job helping protect children.
But she said she is disturbed by the 41 deaths highlighted in the Every Child Matters report — which covered 12 months that ended Sept. 30, 2007.
"We really wish there weren't any fatalities," Wilson said. "Every fatality is a tragedy."
State officials received two or more reports of suspected mistreatment in 60 percent of the 304 cases in which a child died or suffered life-threatening injuries during the past 10 years, according to the state's annual report on child-abuse deaths.
And in 21 of those cases, the cabinet had received 10 or more reports of suspected mistreatment, according to the annual report.
Child-abuse experts say the true picture might be even worse because as many as half of all child-abuse or neglect deaths might not be recognized and reported, being classified instead as accidental or from natural causes.
"I think some people are too nice to allow themselves to imagine what some people are capable of doing," said Dr. Melissa Currie, director of the University of Louisville's pediatric forensic division