Rise In Duval County Infant Fatalities Increases Need For Awareness And Transparency

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The Florida Department of Children and Families recently included a new heat map on their child fatality website. The heat map shows communities in Florida affected by child fatalities.
The Florida Department of Children and Families’ heat map displays areas largely affected by child fatalities. Unsafe sleeping conditions increase the risk of fatalities in infants younger than 12 months. / Photo provided by the Department of Children and Families.

The Department of Children and Families hopes to increase awareness of unsafe sleeping practices in Duval County after seeing an increase in child fatalities this year.

Unsafe sleeping conditions for infants include sleeping on the stomach with soft bedding or sleeping with parents,  said John Harrell, Department of Children and Families communications director of Northeast Florida. These risks increase the chances of fatalities in infants under the age of 1.

“We want to all get together, see what we can do to come up with some unified strategies as far as getting the word out to parents,” Harrell said.

Harrell said most parents are unaware their children are in potential danger, especially when co-sleeping, a practice involving parents or caretakers sleeping with their babies next to them. Harrell said this type of sleeping increases the potential for a parent to suffocate the baby when rolling over.

Since January, Duval County reported seven infant deaths to the Florida Abuse Hotline. According to the department press release, out of the seven deaths, six involved unsafe sleeping practices.

In response to the increase of child fatalities in Duval County, the Department of Children and Families invited more than 40 representatives to discuss the situation. Representatives from local law enforcement, hospitals, nonprofit organizations and social service agencies met on March 24 at the headquarters in Jacksonville.

Randolf Thornton, a pediatrician with Jacksonville Pediatrics, said there are prevention practices parents can use when practicing safe sleeping.

“The biggest thing is make sure they’re in their own crib,” Thornton said. “Parents should make sure the baby is on their back. They shouldn’t have any blankets or covers as well.”

A child’s bedding should be hard without soft blankets that could wrap around the baby’s face, Thornton said.

According to the Department of Children and Families’ child fatality site, six of the reported seven infants’ deaths are currently under investigation. If criminal acts become apparent during investigation of the death scene or autopsy, charges can be brought against the parent. However, in many cases involving unsafe sleeping practices, parents are unaware their actions potentially could be the cause of their child’s death.

Bunny Hamer, vice-president of Florida Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Alliance, said while a case is under investigation, officials examine the death scene, perform an autopsy and review the infant’s medical history. A thorough investigation could last up to five or six months before a possible cause can be determined by the medical examiner.

Hamer said there are two ways to define the situation when an infant dies immediately and without obvious explanation.  The first is sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), when a death cannot be explained after thorough investigation and autopsy, and the second is sudden unexplained infant death syndrome (SUIDS), when a death cannot be explained and further investigation is still required.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, although no research has determined the cause of SUIDS and SIDS, most cases involved infants found in unsafe sleeping conditions.

“Because of the undiagnosed medical cause of death, many families do not get the closure when it comes time for other things to happen,” Hamer said. “The families are left in limbo because there is not a cause of death that is registered.”

In the first three months of 2014, four infant deaths were reported in Duval County. Out of the four, three infants were found in unsafe sleeping conditions.

Duval County’s neighbor counties, Clay and Baker, reported zero infant fatalities in 2015.  In Florida, 124 child fatalities have been reported in the past three months. Eighty of the fatalities included infants under the age of 1.

Agencies like the Northeast Florida Healthy Start Coalition work with parents early in their pregnancies to avoid infant fatalities. Healthy Start provides parents with information on top of the information they might receive from their doctors, said Jennifer Gornto, Healthy Start executive director.

“After their baby is born, parents will be tired and exhausted,” Gornto said. “If we can inform mothers early enough, we can have them prepare themselves better.”

The DCF added new tools to the department’s child fatality website on March 18 to provide more information for parents and caregivers.The website contains information on all child fatalities reported by the Florida Abuse Hotline and is updated weekly.

Reports from the Critical Incident Response Team investigations and heat map, which visually shows areas in Florida that were affected by child fatalities, can be viewed on the child fatality website.

The DCF’s press release said the department hopes the new information will allow the department and its partners to target the cause of fatalities in local communities.

“The only way to prevent future tragedies is to be transparent about the past,” Mike Carroll, DCF secretary, wrote in the press release.”We are publicly examining how the department can improve practice, and we are engaging the community to partner with us to end all preventable child fatalities in Florida.”

About Elizabeth Thompson

Elizabeth is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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