Arkansas child deaths down in latest year surveyed, but still above pre-pandemic levels

(Stock image)
(Stock image)

After rising in 2020, the number of child deaths in Arkansas fell slightly in 2021 but was still higher than the number in 2019, according to annual reports by the state's Infant and Child Death Review Program.

In 2021, 457 children died in the state, according to the program's most recent annual report, for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2023.

That was down from the 470 child deaths in 2020 listed in the previous annual report but still up from 421 deaths in 2019. The report for fiscal 2021 noted that "the total number of child deaths in Arkansas have steadily declined between the years of 2016-2019."

"Vital records are received and cases reviewed approximately one to two years prior to each annual report. Therefore, deaths occurring in 2021 were reviewed between July 2022 - June 2023 with the annual report completed in December 2023," the most recent report says.

Semeria Hill, coordinator of the Infant and Child Death Review Program, presented findings from the latest report to the state Senate Committee on Children and Youth and the House committees on Aging, Children and Youth and Legislative and Military Affairs during a joint meeting near the state Capitol in Little Rock on Wednesday.

The program is administered by Arkansas Children's Hospital and the pediatrics department at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. It involves 11 teams, consisting of law enforcement, medical and other personnel, that review unexpected child deaths pursuant to Act 1818 of 2005.

The law defines unexpected deaths as those caused by sudden infant death syndrome or that were from unknown causes as well as all others that did not result from a disease for which the child was receiving medical treatment.

In 2021, 215 of the state's 457 child deaths were deemed eligible for review by the program, and 147 of those were reviewed.

Of the 68 deaths eligible for review that were not reviewed, 28 were under investigation by law enforcement or being prosecuted, according to the fiscal 2023 report.

The other 40 were not reviewed due to the inability to obtain sufficient records to review the cases, according to the report.

The most common cause, accounting for 60 deaths, of the deaths that were reviewed was listed as "undetermined/sudden unexpected death," a category that includes sleep-related deaths.

Of the babies who died of sleep-related deaths, 47% were sleeping with an adult in an adult bed, and 45% were placed on their stomachs, the report says.

Motor vehicle crashes accounted for 28 deaths across age groups of the deaths that were reviewed, and in a majority of those cases child safety seats were not used or were used incorrectly, the report says.

While homicides accounted for only five of the deaths that were reviewed, a total of 28 of the 457 child deaths in 2021 were homicides, the report notes.

In response to a question from Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, Hill said one of the goals of the program is to reduce the number of homicides of infants and children.

Sullivan asked if the program had collected statistics on how many of the homicides were carried out by repeat offenders or "felons." Hill said the program had not collected that information but that she would look into it.

"So we had 28 infant and children's deaths, and we want to cut that number in half. It would seem important to know, who are the people that are committing those homicides? ... What are we doing to reduce those numbers?" Sullivan asked.

Suicides accounted for 15 of the deaths from 2021 that were reviewed by the program, down from 18 in 2020.

Of the suicides in 2021, 67% were carried out by firearms, 13% were hangings and 20% were overdoses, with most of these occurring in the 15-17 age group.

The report lists 33 deaths as being from "another unintentional cause," including falls, asphyxia, poison and fires.

Citing data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the report notes that Arkansas' rate of child deaths due to injury in 2021 was higher than the national rate across age groups for which national rates were available at the time the report was compiled.

The rate of death from injury for infants under 1 year old in Arkansas was 43.2 per 100,000 children compared to the national rate of 11.24 per 100,000 children.

The rate of death for children age 1-4 in Arkansas was 15.66 per 100,000 compared to the national rate of 11.24 per 100,000.

The rate of death for children between the ages of 15 and 17 in Arkansas was 42.06 per 100,000 compared to the national rate of 33.66 per 100,000.

The rate of death in Arkansas was 12.43 per 100,000 for children age 5-9 and 13.65 for children age 10-14. National rates for those age groups were not available, according to the report.

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