WASHINGTON — The number of infants, children and teens dying in the District has dropped significantly since 2008, according to a new report from the Office of the D.C. Auditor. But the child fatality rate in D.C. is still much higher than the national average and there’s been a small but worrisome uptick in more recent years.
“It’s good news and concerning news, so it’s a real mixed bag,” D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson told WTOP in an interview about the findings of her office’s report.
Meanwhile, a special panel tasked with reviewing the death of every single child in D.C. is hampered by budget cuts and staff shortages, and is falling far behind in keeping up with its workload, according to the auditor’s report.
What’s behind the significant drop?
The long-term trend is clear. Child deaths in D.C. dropped by 32 percent between 2008 and 2015, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed by auditors. Deaths involving children fell faster than overall deaths in the District, and the decline came even with a growing youth population in D.C.
The CDC recorded 124 deaths of children and teens in 2015 compared to 182 in 2008.
That drop was fueled, in part, by sharp decreases in the number of children and teens dying in homicides, according to the report. Infant mortality rates also dropped significantly.
But even with the overall decline over the past decade, the number of child fatalities ticked up slightly between 2013 and 2015, auditors noted.
“It’s not really a trend; we can’t say that,” Patterson said. “But we need to just continue to be vigilant in trying to do what we can with policy and practice to protect kids to the greatest extent possible.”
D.C.’s child death rate also remains 69 percent higher than the national average. There also remains persistently sharp racial and geographical divisions in the number of children dying, with African-American children and children living in Wards 5, 7 and 8 far above the overall D.C. average, according to the report.
The report tracked D.C. infant morality rate and the deaths of children and teens up to age 19.
Most infant deaths in D.C. are from natural causes, auditors said, and usually associated with risk factors, such as inadequate prenatal care and low birth weight.
The number of infant deaths in D.C. dropped from 100 in 2008 to 72 in 2014 — a 28 percent drop — according to D.C. Department of Health statistics. That equates to a lower per capita rate than Detroit, Richmond and Baltimore, but is higher than Boston. It’s also 27 percent higher than the national rate.
Ward 8, which has the highest poverty rate in D.C. and the lowest median household income, had the highest infant mortality rate in 2014. Ward 3, which has the lowest poverty rate and the highest median income, had the lowest rate of infant mortality.
Among children and teens ages 5 to 14, annual deaths decreased from 18 in 2008 to eight in 2012 — a 56 percent drop, according to D.C. Department of Health statistics.
Deaths among teens, ages 15 to 19, have also fallen sharply, decreasing from 45 in 2008 to 21 in 2015, according to CDC data.
What’s behind the drop? Homicides, which have been the leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-olds, fell significantly, the report found. From 2008 to 2015, children killed as a result of homicides dropped from 34 to 14.
A tool to prevent child deaths hampered by budget cuts
The auditor’s office also examined the work of a special panel — known as the Child Fatality Review Council — that, by law, is supposed to review every single child’s death in the District to make recommendations to policymakers for preventing future deaths.
The panel is a “tool that you can use to figure out what is happening with individual children and individual cases and try to take from that things that could be done to be preventive down the road.”
The auditor’s report said some agencies were not taking recommendations from the council seriously enough. “The follow-up is sort of missing,” one person interviewed for the report told auditors.
Auditors also noted a “troubling” drop in the review panel’s work in recent years. There were 124 child deaths in 2015, according to the CDC, but the review panel only analyzed 35 child deaths in its 2015 annual report.
The council blamed budget and staffing cuts and “more intensive review of complex cases” that simply took more time.
The panel’s budget was cut by 64 percent between 2009 and 2011 — from $815,000 to $292,00 — as a result of the 2009-2011 recession and lost five of its eight full-time staff members. The panel’s current budget is $594,000.
The auditor’s report recommended the D.C. Council hold annual hearings on the review panel’s work.
WTOP’s Megan Cloherty contributed to this report