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Dying Too Young: Trends show poverty plays a role, many deaths are preventable

Oklahoman Modified: March 27, 2009 at 3:30 pm •  Published: March 27, 2009
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Here are some trends found in a review of child deaths in Oklahoma:

* Poverty often plays a role.

”If they died from a car wreck ... a drowning, intentional abuse or sudden illness ... a commonality that you see more times than not is that this family is poor,” said Annette Wisk Jacobi, a state Health Department official who has served for years on the state Child Death Review Board. “A lot of the time we're looking at children left alone or left with a child not old enough to care for everyone else or ... left with somebody who is not a very good care provider. ... As the economy kind of goes south, we're going to see more of this.”

In many child murder cases, the killer is unemployed or financially stressed from reasons such as divorce, court records show. One out-of-work defendant awaiting trial admitted to police he became frustrated caring for his two stepchildren and infant son in a motel room day after day while his wife worked. He said he slapped, threw, kicked and stomped his 2-year-old stepdaughter Liliana because she wouldn't eat her lunch.

* The number of child deaths in Oklahoma each year dropped from more than 1,000 in the early 1980s to fewer than 800 in recent years.

* Almost 100 children have been homicide victims since the start of 2006, according to the state medical examiner. But those statistics can be misleading. A drowning death caused by neglect was listed by the medical examiner as manner unknown. And a smoke inhalation death — where the batteries for the smoke alarms had been used for toys — was considered an accident. Many deaths are considered to be from natural causes.

* Some deaths from possible abuse or neglect go unpunished. No arrests were made in 17 of 47 child homicides studied in 2007 by the Child Death Review Board, according to its latest report. Prosecutors have told the board they sometimes can't identify a perpetrator because too many people were around a child around the time of an injury.

* Dozens of deaths could have been prevented, especially those caused by parents and infants sleeping together.

In case after case, an autopsy found a baby died after a sleeping parent rolled over on him or her. Alcohol or drugs are sometimes involved.

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