By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
More than a third of the 157 children and young adults who died in the District in 2006 came from troubled families that had contact with the city's child welfare system, according to a D.C. government report published this month. Homicides accounted for nearly a quarter of the fatalities.
The 14th annual report of the Child Fatality Review Committee lays out how much young lives remain at risk in the District. Coming in the wake of the case of Banita Jacks, who was charged this month with killing her four daughters in Southeast Washington, the report could lead to more scrutiny of the city's child welfare system. At a news conference after Jacks's arrest, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) cited numerous instances in which city agencies had contacts with the family but apparently lost track of the children.
The D.C. Council's human services and judiciary committees will hold a joint hearing Feb. 7 on the report, which covers the deaths of D.C. residents younger than 23.
"The issue is not about one family or one woman," council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the judiciary committee, said yesterday. He noted how little the death count has changed over the years. "It's a pretty consistent problem. . . . We've made very little progress."
The 157 deaths illustrate stark disparities within the city. Ninety-three percent of those who died were African Americans. More than 25 percent were residents of widely impoverished Ward 8.
Natural causes were responsible for almost 100 of the deaths, 77 of them infants. Many died of problems associated with premature birth or low birth weight.
Violent deaths fell from 43 in 2005 to 37 in 2006. Three were blamed on abuse or neglect, and 34 -- all African Americans -- were classified "child/youth homicides."
And 59 of the 157 children met the definition for review as "a child welfare fatality," according to the report, because either they or their families were known to child welfare workers.
"It is our hope that this information will not only bring greater attention and understanding to the ways that District children are dying" but help in improving policies, practices and programs, the report said. Its findings were first reported yesterday in the Examiner.
The Child Fatality Review Committee, made up of public officials and community members, recommended that the city's Health Department collaborate with hospitals to give better instructions at discharge to mothers of newborns with multiple medical problems.
Among other steps, the panel urged more training in emergency-response offices so they will better respond to 911 calls about child trauma and provide immediate and appropriate intervention.
The Jacks case has drawn outrage and calls for speedy, significant changes in agencies responsible for safeguarding vulnerable children. Fenty, who has promised reforms, fired six workers in the Child and Family Services Agency for failing to aggressively follow up after a social worker at one of the girls' schools raised concerns about the family.
Multiple D.C. agencies had contact with Jacks, 33, and her four daughters, ages 5 to 17. The girls' decomposed bodies were found Jan. 9 when deputy U.S. marshals went to their rowhouse on Sixth Street SE to evict their mother.