The state Department of Children and Families will increase oversight and services to families with parental substance abuse, mental health and other problems who are identified at “highest risk” of a young child dying, the agency announced Monday.
The move comes as Connecticut grapples with a high number of child deaths, outlined in a recent report by the state Office of the Child Advocate (OCA). In the report, OCA found that DCF’s response to “at-risk infants” was often insufficient, showing “gaps in risk assessment, treatment planning, case follow-up, and quality assurance.”
DCF said the new effort to target high-risk families came out of its own study of 124 fatalities that occurred between January 2005 and May 2014 of children ages three and under in families with some DCF involvement.
The study findings are “prompting changes that will pinpoint families with the highest risks and increase oversight and services for these families,” the agency said in a statement.
The study, which compared cases in which a child died to a control group, found that fatalities were less likely when DCF had conducted comprehensive assessments of parents’ needs. Child deaths also were less likely when there was “sufficient frequency” of social worker visits with parents. Parents with mental health and substance abuse treatment needs were more likely to be involved in a child death.
DCF will receive first-year funding and assistance from the Eckerd Foundation to identify high-risk families and increase interventions, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz said. She said a similar strategy to increase oversight of targeted families has been effective in Florida and other places. Casey Family Programs will fund the program’s second year.
“National research shows it is hard to predict when a fatality will occur,” Katz said. “However, our own research in Connecticut and the experience elsewhere show this is a promising approach to preventing heartbreaking tragedies.”
The DCF study found that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDs) was the most common cause of death for young children (28.2 percent), followed by medical complications (12.1 percent), unsafe sleep (11.2 percent) and physical injury (8.1 percent). Among the 124 children who died, 65 percent were less than six months old.
Unsafe sleep conditions, including in some SIDs cases, were a factor in about a third of the deaths. Last year, DCF instituted a policy requiring social workers to talk with parents of children under the age of one about the importance of ensuring a safe sleep environment, inspect the family’s sleeping arrangements, and offer free “pack ‘n plays” to families who need a safe place for the child to sleep.