Niki Kelly: Child abuse, neglect deaths deserve more attention

At 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 30 — days after a Christmas holiday and days before New Year’s — the Indiana Department of Child Services dropped its annual report of child abuse and neglect fatalities.

Sixty Hoosier children died at the hands of their mother, father, parents’ significant other or caregiver in 2021. That was a 20% increase from 50 deaths in 2020, when the pandemic gripped Indiana.

There were a few headlines to be found from media using skeleton holiday staffs. But definitely not the dialogue and anger the report should elicit.

The report is not easy to read, nor am I saying the job of the department is easy. How do you stop people from making the worst mistake or decision of their lives?

Thirteen of the children were previous victims of substantiated abuse.

One of those was an 8-year-old boy with four previous substantiated assessments. His father had two substantiated abuse or neglect findings. The boy was living with his paternal grandmother, who had adopted him.

But the boy was visiting his father, whose home was littered with illicit drugs and aluminum foil. The father admitted to using and selling fentanyl and heroin and using Benadryl to cut the drugs for sale. He said fentanyl was likely on the aluminum foil the child could be seen putting in his mouth in a TikTok video.

If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, call the Indiana Department of Child Services’ Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline today. It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, including weekends and holidays. You can report abuse and neglect anonymously at 1-800-800-5556.

Other neglect cases involve co-sleeping, drowning and motor vehicle accidents, but the abuse deaths are even worse to read about, mostly involving blunt force trauma from anger or frustration.

One 3-year old boy had an open maltreatment case with the Department of Child Services and seven previous unsubstantiated assessments. The boy was found dead with several bruises and other injuries. The mother admitted to a witness that her boyfriend struck her son, resulting in the child’s death, and she helped cover it up. The boyfriend admitted to a witness that he believed he caused the child’s death.

The agency points to increasing support for programs to help avoid such terrible cases — home visitation programs, parent education and home-based care management.

One new program has increased referrals for families to the Indiana Preservation Services program, which supports family preservation efforts following an instance of abuse or neglect.

Another program focuses on solving systemic challenges rather than blaming the individual people. For instance, looking at education levels, employment status and history of substance abuse.

I know the instinct is to hide and push this horrific data into the background. But I think more focus on it would bring the appropriate attention to an ongoing problem.

Be uncomfortable, but don’t be blind.

Niki Kelly is editor-in-chief of indianacapitalchronicle.com, where this commentary first appeared. She has covered Indiana politics and the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 for publications including the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. Send comments to [email protected]