Sleeping kills in Florida.
Especially when you’re an infant and your mom is a drug addict.
When you think of kids who die of child abuse, it’s easy to imagine some unspeakable act of violence.
But it turns out, the fatal mistreatment of at-risk children is likely to be an unintentional act of neglect.
The Florida Department of Children and Families has the difficult job of making sure that children born to unsuitable parents don’t die at their hands. Lately, the department hasn’t been doing so well.
Twenty at-risk children with previous contacts from child-abuse investigators have died in Florida since April.
This has created an impetus for state legislators to do something. This week, the not-for-profit Casey Family Programs issued a report to lawmakers after examining 40 childhood fatalities in Florida that occurred to previously known at-risk kids.
It’s a sad roundup of personal and institutional failure. More than half of the dead kids in the report never made it to their first birthdays, and 90 percent of them were younger than 5 years old when they died.
And about one-third of them suffocated in their sleep.
“The most common cause of death for children in the sample was asphyxia, suffocation of an infant by an adult or, in two instances, by an older sibling sleeping in the same bed or on a sofa,” the report said.
“Children who died in co-sleeping incidents, or who were sleeping alone in beds or cribs, were often placed face down on a mattress or couch with pillows, blankets and other items that violated safe sleeping guidelines developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.”
Seems like a solvable problem. The department’s solution has been to warn parents about the suffocation risks. But it hasn’t worked. Why not?
“Most of the parents or caregivers in these ‘roll-over’ deaths had histories of substance abuse and/or tested positive for drugs following the child death,” the report said.
And very few had ever received treatment for their substance-abuse problem.
“Most of the parental substance abuse associated with child deaths was not relapse-related; rather parents with ongoing substance abuse issues, and often family violence, were attempting to raise babies and other young children,” the report said.
So giving these parents a one-time lecture on sleeping safety is basically just a hope-based plan. Or, as the report put it:
“Giving information regarding co-sleeping once to drug-addicted parents, or to substance-abusing parents not established in a recovery process, and having these parents sign agreements to refrain from co-sleeping with infants, is a highly risky and questionable basis for safety planning.”
Safety lectures won’t work. Drug treatment programs will. And spending more on social services, not less, to ease the workload on family caseworkers, will give them time to be more actively involved in monitoring the children under their care.
“Ideally, public health nurses, or parent mentors, would be available to make regular and frequent home visits during at-risk infants’ first 3-4 months,” the report said.
And instead of finding new corporate tax breaks, legislators could expand the funding of drug treatment programs in the state. Sure, it’s a big problem to tackle.
Only 15 percent of the 1.2 million Floridians who need drug treatment can afford it, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
But it’s only expensive if you ignore the big picture.
The average cost of a seven-month substance abuse treatment program is $10,290, while the average cost of putting a drug offender in prison is $56,000, according to the Florida Alcohol and Drug Abuse Foundation.
And every dollar spent on substance abuse treatment is offset by $2 to $3.50 in health care cost savings, the foundation estimates.
Then there are all those future infants who won’t be smothered in their sleep.
What price tag do you put on their lives?