16 Alaska kids died by abuse or neglect in seven years

Lack of staff, resources caused cases to slip through

Posted: Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A new report says 16 Alaska children died from abuse or neglect during a seven-year span, and the true count likely is much higher.

The report, released last week by the national advocacy group Every Child Matters, looked state-by-state at deaths, child protection spending, child abuse rates and other indications of risks to children and responses by the states. Nationwide, the official count of child abuse and neglect deaths from 2001 to 2007 was 10,440.

Around the country, many who died were age 3 or younger; four in 10 were under age 1. Children were shaken and beaten, drowned and strangled, suffocated and starved.

The group says the deaths are preventable and that states' efforts to help children in troubled families are falling short. The report is called "We Can Do Better: Child Abuse and Neglect Deaths in America."

"In thousands of these cases, people reported the danger facing the child to authorities. For a variety of reasons - especially child protective agency budgets and staff capacity stretched dangerously thin in comparison to the problem - the response to these warnings failed the child," the report said.

The new report includes a photograph of a child from each state who died and a quick description of what happened; the grim list includes the case of 5-month-old Kaydence Lewinski from Wasilla.

Kaydence suffered bruises all over her body before she died in 2007, troopers have said. Her father shook her and threw her on a couch, troopers said. Last year, he was sentenced to 30 years for second-degree murder.

For Alaska, "the 16 deaths, the official deaths, may belie the fact that there are many more," if the problem is looked at more broadly, said Michael Petit, president of Washington, D.C.-based Every Child Matters.

For instance, Alaska public health researchers in 2008 reported that 114 Alaska babies had died over an 11-year-period from abuse, neglect or "gross negligence." Some suffocated in their sleep. Some didn't get needed medical care. Six were shaken to death; seven were killed by being thrown, dropped, hit or kicked.

"We do not need to meet a legal definition for conviction but rather ask, was neglect or abuse a likely part of the causal chain that contributed to death? If so, we count it. Using this type of reasoning, we find levels of maltreatment-related deaths something like 10 times higher than reported numbers," Brad Gessner, an epidemiologist with the state Division of Public Health, wrote in an e-mail.

The state medical examiner's office classified the deaths of 27 Alaska children from 2004 to 2007 as homicides. Excluding 10 killed by gunshots, at least some of the remaining 17 appeared to be related to abuse or neglect: six were killed by trauma to the head, three were strangled, one died from neglect of an unspecified medical condition, another from hypothermia.

Some of the abuse and neglect deaths are well known; others happen as private family tragedies hidden from the public.

One Alaska baby who died was Ashton Burns, strangled along with his mother by his father in 2005. Just weeks before he was killed, the baby suffered a fractured skull, which was investigated by the state Office of Children's Services. But both parents insisted to investigators that the mother had tripped and fallen while carrying the baby, and OCS didn't find abuse. After Ashton was killed, his father admitted he also caused the earlier head injury, according to news reports. The father, Christopher Kevan, was sentenced to 198 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of killing his son along with the baby's mother.

OCS officials said they couldn't discuss individual deaths, even when state workers were previously involved with the family, unless the state Department of Law reviewed the matter first.

"While every child fatality is tragic - whether the child protection system had prior knowledge/involvement with the family or not - prevention programs and strong community collaborations are the most effective tools to improve child and parent outcomes," OCS director Tammy Sandoval said in an e-mail.

While the report says some hard-pinched states are slashing child protection budgets, that isn't happening in Alaska. The budget for the Office of Children's Services is growing, officials said.

But challenges continue, including, Sandoval wrote, "retention of staff that can do the work; the difficult, complex, stressful and emotionally exhausting nature of the work; and the availability (of) services on a statewide basis that adequately meet the increasingly complex and unique needs of each Alaskan family."

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