There were 17 abuse- and neglect-related deaths of youngsters in Dallas County in fiscal 2013, which ended last August. That was a 55 percent increase over the 11 reported for the previous fiscal year.
In Collin and Tarrant counties, there were decreases, while other Dallas-area counties remained about the same.
Officials were puzzled by the statewide data, which the department released in its annual databook.
“We really don’t know why fatality numbers vary from year to year,” said department spokesman Patrick Crimmins. “It could very well increase again, up to 200.”
Since fiscal 2010, between 212 and 231 youngsters have died from abuse and neglect per year.
The number plunged to 156, though, in fiscal 2013 — the lowest death toll since the exact same number also was recorded in 2000.
Texas has nearly 7.2 million children, and last year’s decline in child deaths from abuse and neglect came despite a steady drumbeat of recent news reports about a much different statistic: In fiscal 2013, there was a nearly fourfold increase in mistreatment deaths of foster children, a tiny subset of the overall child population. Foster children already have been unlucky enough to be severed from their birth families.
For them to suffer harm again in a new, supposedly “safe” environment troubles child advocates, private child placing agency executives and department officials.
The horrific body-slamming deaths of 2-year-old foster girl Alexandria Hill in rural Central Texas last July and 11-month-old foster baby Orien Hamilton in an Austin suburb last October rattled the department.
Commissioner John Specia ordered Child Protective Services workers to make sweeps of certain foster homes. He convened “stakeholder meetings” with foster-care providers to look at possible changes in procedures and rules. He already has overhauled certain practices.
Next week, a Texas Senate panel will hold a hearing on the safety of children in the department’s care.
As has been widely reported, two foster children died from maltreatment in fiscal 2012. The preliminary number for 2013 jumped to eight, though Crimmins said Tuesday that one of those deaths no longer is attributed to abuse and neglect. Investigation of one other foster child’s death in fiscal 2013 is still pending, he said. Crimmins said that so far, Orien Hamilton’s is the only suspicious foster child death in the current budget year, which began Sept. 1.
He said, though, that he can’t parse the downturn of abuse deaths in the larger child population. Crimmins noted there was a spike, to 280 deaths, in fiscal 2009. But it lasted only a year, as deaths dropped back to 227 in 2010, 231 in 2011 and 212 in 2012.
“We never could figure out why it occurred,” he said of the 2009 increase.
Almost as mystifying are the divergent trends in major urban counties.
Maltreatment-related child deaths dropped last year in Harris, Tarrant and Bexar counties — and significantly. In Harris County, there were 24, down from 45 the previous year. In Tarrant, there were 14, down from 19 in 2012. Bexar had 10 deaths from abuse in 2013, down from 19 the previous year. El Paso County held steady with four deaths in both years. But two other major metro counties saw increases.
“Dallas and Travis are the only two counties that bucked the trend,” Crimmins said, noting an uptick from two to five in Travis County (Austin). And that didn’t include Orien Hamilton’s death, which came about six weeks into the current fiscal year.
In Collin County, there were two maltreatment deaths of children last year, down from four in fiscal 2012. Denton County had two in each of the two years and Kaufman County, one in each. Either year, Ellis County had none.
Statewide, Crimmins said the pool of all possible suspicious deaths that are reported to CPS — by hospitals, police and others — has been steadily decreasing since 2010. The agency investigates all of the deaths. The department has begun more rigorous analysis of child deaths, to look for trends, he said. CPS’ first such analysis, of the 2013 deaths, will be released in a few weeks, he said.
“That will give us a lot more information,” he said.