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Is Arkansas conducting adequate investigations when children die?

Is Arkansas conducting adequate investigations when children die?

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Rally-goers gather at the Arkansas Capitol on April 18, 2019 for an event designed to bring awareness to child abuse.
Rally-goers gather at the Arkansas Capitol on April 18, 2019 for an event designed to bring awareness to child abuse. The event was one of a series during National Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month.
(Photo by John Sykes at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

By the age of 6, Isaiah had been beaten, burned and raped.

Police had investigated the alleged sexual assaults of Isaiah’s sisters by a family member. A state child welfare worker investigated allegations of inadequate supervision and cuts, bruises and welts.

But Isaiah didn’t make it to 7.

Isaiah contracted a bacterial infection from being sodomized with a broomstick and died in 2015. Death reports also show the boy was beaten with a cord. His father was found guilty of murder. The verdict is now on appeal.

State social workers visited Christopher’s parents twice in 2010 and three times in 2011. 

Those visits mostly concluded that abuse claims had been unsubstantiated. During one visit, the worker couldn’t find the parents and never returned. 

After his mother told hospital workers that his skull fracture occurred when he fell out of his car seat, the hospital called the state’s child abuse hotline. The social worker who visited the home marked that the abuse allegation was true — the bone was broken — but Christopher and his siblings remained in the home.

The state’s last visit to his home in 2012 came after Christopher’s mother’s boyfriend beat him to death with a belt and a phone charger. The coroner attributed the cause of death to the toddler’s internal injuries. 

His mother and her boyfriend were charged with murder.

During their trial, day care workers said that they suspected something was wrong when they saw whip-like marks on Christopher’s skin. But they didn’t call the police.

After his death, his siblings were removed and his mother and her boyfriend were sentenced to prison time.

Arkansas has a child mortality rate of 74.8 per 100,000, which is 17.3 per 100,000 higher than the national average, according to federal mortality data that spans 1999 to 2017.

How often are these deaths the result of abuse or neglect? When abuse and neglect occur, how thorough are investigations? Are they reported consistently and uniformly?

How many of these deaths could have been prevented?

When children do die, are they tracked properly? Are death investigators trained to spot signs of abuse or suspicious deaths? What laws in other states have been proven to decrease the number of deaths of children? What programs have helped? What programs are already in place, and what does the state need?

These are a few of the topics I hope to investigate as a participant in the Center for Health Journalism's 2019 Data Fellowship.

For the past year, I have examined coroner’s death records from 74 of Arkansas’ 75 counties, police reports, prosecutorial files, Department of Human Services reports and Arkansas State Police data in an effort to answer these questions. 

The Little River County coroner has not complied with my requests for documents after nearly a year of emails, letters and phone calls.

I’ve created a database of these deaths, with records from 2012 to 2017.

My research into these documents has already produced one story on the patchwork system of coroner record-keeping in Arkansas, which was published in December 2018. Arkansas has no requirement for coroner training, some coroners take records with them when they leave office, and each county has its own format for writing up death reports.

My first steps will be to refine and finish analyzing the dataset I’ve produced. The next steps will include conducting more interviews with officials who oversee the system, legislators who hear quarterly reports on the number of child death investigations the state conducts, and — most importantly — talking to families affected by the system.

I intend to keep this project focused as much as possible on the families and children who have been involved with the system. This story has been a lot to take on, but I and my editors at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette think it’s an important one to tell.


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