INDIANAPOLIS – Newly released federal figures show a sharp rise in child abuse fatalities in the U.S., with the bulk of the increase occurring in two states — Indiana and Texas — where child-welfare agencies have been in disarray.
According to a report released this week by the Department of Health and Human Services, there were 1,700 fatalities resulting from child maltreatment reported in fiscal year 2016, compared to 1,589 the previous year — a 7 percent increase. The figures encompass data from every state but Maine, as well as from the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Accounting for most of the increase were Texas, where fatalities jumped from 162 to 217, and Indiana, where the death toll more than doubled from 34 to 70.
"It breaks my heart for the kids in this state right now," said Juvenile Judge Marilyn A. Moores, whose Indianapolis courtroom has seen a surge in child welfare cases due to the opioid epidemic.
"Traditional systems of early warning are overwhelmed. And parents, because of addiction, aren't seeking intervention because their kids are going to be removed," she added. "It allows kids to die. It's a fact."
Long festering problems in Indiana's child welfare system exploded into public view in December, when the director of the Department of Child Services resigned with a scathing letter that accused Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb of making management changes and service cuts that "all but ensure children will die."
"I choose to resign, rather than be complicit in decreasing the safety, permanency and well-being of children who have nowhere else to turn," wrote Mary Beth Bonaventura, a former juvenile judge appointed to lead the agency by then-Gov. Mike Pence in 2013.
In recent years, the number of child welfare cases in Indiana has skyrocketed, rising from about 13,000 in 2012 to nearly 24,000 last year. Funding, meanwhile, has not kept pace, said Cathy Graham, executive director of the Indiana Association of Resources and Child Advocacy.
Advocates paint a picture of an agency in perpetual triage, with caseworkers spread so thin that they have little choice but to cut corners. The agency does not have enough caseworkers to meet a minimum requirement set in state law and turnover has been a major problem, according to the agency's most recent annual report.
Holcomb launched a review in December. A preliminary report released Thursday found the state has an inadequate case management system.
In Texas, abuse-related fatalities have continued to rise despite high-level personnel changes at the child welfare agency, new legislative appropriations, and a federal judge, Janis Graham Jack, declaring in 2015 that the foster care system violated the constitutional rights of youngsters' placed in long-term foster care.
In January, the judge issued her final order in the case, saying the state's foster care system remained "broken." She also ordered improvements in regards to record keeping and the handling of foster care placements. Texas appealed the ruling.
Two years ago, a commission created by Congress concluded that the United States lacks coherent, effective strategies for reducing the number of children who die each year from abuse and neglect. Although the number of such deaths reported by HHS has hovered at around 1,500 to 1,600 annually in recent years, the commission — citing gaps in how the data is compiled — suggested the actual number may be as high as 3,000 a year.
The commission issued an update this week noting that states across the country were moving to implement some of its recommendations for preventing maltreatment deaths.
The new report released by HHS's Children's Bureau, formally known as the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System, does not offer theories explaining the sharp rise in child fatalities, but it provides demographic data on the victims.
According to the report, 70 percent of the victims were younger than 3. Fatality rates were higher for boys than for girls, and higher for African-American children than for whites and Hispanics.
Parents — acting alone, together or with other individuals — were the perpetrators in 78 percent of the deaths.
Looking more broadly at national trends, the report estimated that 676,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect in 2016, a 1 percent drop from 2015. Most of the cases involved neglect; about 18 percent involved physical abuse — up slightly from 2015.
Crary reported from New York. Will Weissert in Austin, Texas, also contributed to this report.