As a Norfolk cop for thirty years, Larry Hill saw a lot of things that he would rather forget — like the few times he walked into homes where infants had died in their sleep because a caretaker had fallen asleep.
“Being there in person, it’s just horrible to see what the families go through,” said Hill, who is now a public information officer for the Virginia Department of Health. Hill is also on the Eastern Region Child Fatality Review Team.
“Sitting on the review team, I can help inject some things from prior experience,” Hill added.
The review team released its annual 2016 report in March. It found that 32 infants died in Hampton Roads due to unsafe sleep situations, a significant increase from the 24 sleep-related infant deaths the year before — and also a significant percentage (56) of the 57 sleep-related infant deaths in Virginia.
Eastern Virginia more cognizant of child abuse
Betty Wade Coyle, author of the report and executive director of Champions for Children (formerly Hampton Roads Committee to Prevent Child Abuse), said that one reason for the disproportionately higher numbers in the Eastern part of the state is that its review team is the oldest in the state. It grew out of a meeting between the Hampton Roads Committee to Prevent Child Abuse and the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, and Coyle herself has been collecting data for two decades.
“Our region has been more cognizant of this issue longer than other regions,” she said, adding that the region’s demographics may also have something to do with the higher numbers.
“There is a high percentage of families receiving Medicaid; [and other problems such as] substance abuse, post-partum depression, homelessness,” she said. “All those things put a child more at risk for unsafe sleep.”
Sadly, many of the cases are preventable, Coyle continued. This finding corresponds with what the Virginia State Fatality Review Team found in its latest report, from 2009. Of the 119 infant deaths, 95 percent were preventable.
“Occasionally you get a case that looks like old-fashioned SIDs [sudden infant death syndrome],” Coyle added. “The kid is on their back and dies. And those are unpredictable, and therefore not preventable.
“But a lot of these kids are being suffocated, by sleeping with too much junk, or on their stomachs,” she continued. Infant autopsies often show congestion — due to crying — as a cause of death by suffocation.
Causes of caregiver neglect
Caregiver fatigue might inadvertently lead to these situations, if the caregiver falls asleep with the baby and fails to wake up, Hill added. These tragic scenarios make a good argument for making sure the primary caregiver, usually the baby’s mother, is getting enough help, he continued.
“A lot of times these folks just can’t do it by themselves. They need to share responsibilities,” Hill said. “Men really need to step up to the plate more and do more caretaking.”
Another growing problem is caregiver distraction — usually from social media, Coyle added. “They are checking email and Facebook on phone, and are not paying as much attention as they should be.”
Addiction to video gaming is another distraction. “There’ve been several cases where parents are so addicted to their computer that they neglect to give their kids food and water,” Coyle said.
Outright neglect and abuse was responsible for 46 deaths statewide, 12 of which were in Hampton Roads, according to the report. Three of the deaths were due to physical abuse, and others, from neglectful situations involving unsafe sleep, drowning, car accidents and poisoning.
What’s driving this behavior, apart from social media addiction, is drug addiction, Coyle said. “There’s a big suspicion that the rising numbers are related to opioid addiction. Parents are unconscious because of drugs or alcohol, or [they] fail to check on the children. It’s egregious behavior on the part of the caretaker.”
Another threatening problem that Hill has witnessed is a parent’s (usually the mother’s) violent partner, who shakes the baby to death.
“A lot of these ladies, because of their situation, let these boyfriends move in,” Hill said. “A lot of these guys don’t have a vested interest in their child.”
Preventing child death — and abuse
“We may have to start spending time educating the moms,” he continued.
Other recommendations to prevent child deaths that the team came up with include parent education and support at birth, particularly for parents of premature babies.
“I’d like to see every premature baby have a visiting nurse go to their home at least once after discharge,” Coyle said, adding that new mothers should have access to better substance abuse services and post-partum depression assessments, along with health insurance for at least one year after the birth of their child.
Coyle also advocates the ABC method for sleeping babies: ‘Alone, on their Back, and in the Crib.’ If parents are feeling overwhelmed or have parenting questions, she recommends they call the following parenting hotline at 1-800-CHILDREN.