That represents an increase of 28 deaths, or 18 percent, over 2012, but advocates and agency officials caution against drawing immediate conclusions because this year’s report is more comprehensive.
“This data collection improved from year over year, so I wouldn’t draw the conclusion it was that exact percentage in increase,” said Bobby Cagle, the agency’s interim director. “However, in looking at the data, homicides are most definitely our biggest concern. We will be working more closely with law enforcement and also training our staff in better evidence-collection methods.”
Homicides increased from 22 in 2012 to 26 in 2013. Deaths reported as resulting from natural causes rose from 55 to 76.
“It is a major mistake to jump to the conclusion that because a report comes to DFCS (about suspected abuse or neglect) that we have the ability to prevent the death,” Cagle said.
Melissa Carter, the director of the Barton Chile Law and Policy Center at Emory University, agrees with that warning, noting that most states are showing similar increases because of better reporting.
“Be careful in drawing these causal connections,” she told members of the Children’s Advocacy Network.
Nearly half of those dying were younger than a year old. Most of them were either premature, born with a serious medical condition or both, and 12 never left the hospital.
Nearly one-quarter died in their sleep from being rolled over by a parent, sudden infant death syndrome or were smothered by blankets.
To address an overall problem of infant mortality, the Department of Public Health has set up prenatal classes in local health departments and is working with physicians to address pregnant women’s smoking, diet and general health.
State auditors warned last year that social workers were swamped with too many cases, some juggling more than 100 each. The Legislature approved hiring 525 in the fiscal year that began last month, and before the first 175 started the job, Gov. Nathan Deal approved 100 more to bring the total of new caseworkers this year to 625.
The 180 deaths that were included in Friday’s figures included all that were part of families that the agency had had some contact with in the previous five years. Only 42 percent of the deaths were in families with an open case.
Often the contact was before the victim was born or maybe because another child in the family wasn’t attending school.