THERE IS much to celebrate in the D.C. auditor’s recent report on child fatalities. The District, for years ranked among the worst major U.S. cities for child mortality, saw significant improvement in its child fatality rates between 2008 and 2015. The number of child fatalities per year dropped by 32 percent, from 182 deaths to 124. This was largely fueled by a 53 percent decline in the deaths of 15- to 19-year olds, though infant mortality rates also improved substantially. Given the city’s long and troubled history with child safety, these figures are a heartening sign of progress.
But the report also shows that there is a lot more to be done. In 2015, the most recent year for which data exists, the child fatality rate in the District was 69 percent higher than the national average. The number of child fatalities actually rose between 2013 and 2015, bucking the longer-term trend. Moreover, the report highlights the sharp disparities that exist between communities: African American children and children in Wards 5, 7 and 8 are particularly at risk, while young African American men are disproportionately affected by gun violence and homicide. These gaps warrant a more intense response.
The Child Fatality Review Committee (CFRC) is tasked with reviewing every child death and offering recommendations to agencies. Yet, due to budget and staff cuts, it was only able to analyze 35 child fatality cases in its most recent annual report, compared to 122 in 2010. This impedes its ability to find trends and suggest policy solutions. More troubling are claims that the recommendations the committee was able to make were brushed aside by other agencies. If true, this reveals at best a lack of understanding about the CFRC’s responsibilities, and at worst a culture of complacency among officials charged with promoting public welfare.
There are several interventions that could help the District lower its child fatality rate further. It should consider expanding its home-visiting programs, which provide education, resources and regular check-ins to at-risk families. These programs have been shown to improve outcomes for vulnerable children, but as of 2015 they only had the capacity to serve 1,321 families in the District. The city should also review its child welfare and juvenile justice systems to ensure that at-risk children are identified early and supported throughout their school-age years.
The District has come a long way since 2008. But to see further improvements in child safety, agencies will need to collaborate more closely with each other and the CFRC. With 124 child deaths in 2015 — many of which could have been prevented — the fact that some agency officials reportedly responded to CFRC recommendations by saying, “thanks, but no thanks,” is simply not good enough.