According to a recent report released by the Indiana Department of Child Services, the majority of fatalities due to child abuse or neglect occur in babies and toddlers.
Of the 66 fatalities that occurred in 2014—the most recent year in which data is available—60 percent occurred in children three years old or younger.
DCS spokesman James Wide says the youngest children are the most vulnerable.
“If we’re not actively supervising these children then they will get into things that will hurt them,” he says.
Indiana Youth Institute President Tami Silverman says at that age, children are not only physically fragile, they’re completely helpless.
“They aren’t able to communicate if something isn’t feel well or something isn’t right,” she says. “Obviously they aren’t at that developmental stage to communicate yet.”
The risks are most apparent in two of the most common ways children died—drowning and negligent sleep environments. For example, many deaths of very young children occurred in co-sleeping situations when a parent rolled on top of and suffocated a child, who couldn’t move or say anything to alert the sleeping parent.
Silverman says toddlers—who have recently become mobile yet lack self-awareness—offer a different set of risks. Most of the drowning fatalities—the most common cause of death cited in the report—were in one-, two- and three-year olds. Those fatalities often occurred after parents failed to supervise their children, who then wandered off and fell into lakes or swimming pools.
Causes of death run the gamut from a simple lack of supervision to extreme recklessness and neglect. In one case, a child unlocked a door on his own and drowned in a nearby pond. In another, an adult pointed what he believed to be an unloaded gun at a child and pulled the trigger.
What many cases did have in common were what the DCS terms stress factors. For example, in the majority of both abuse and neglect cases, the child’s caregiver was reported to have insufficient income. Other stress factors include a history of substance abuse and joblessness.
Wide says having a child is stressful enough, but factors such as unemployment can create frustration and distraction that create a potentially fatal environment:
“All these stress factors compound, and that’s one of the patterns we see in the report that continue to lead us to our worst-case scenario, which is a child fatality,” he says.
The DCS reviewed a total of 239 unexpected child deaths, but only fatalities resulting from neglect or abuse are included in the annual report.