EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Nov. 10, 2012.
One hundred twenty Georgia children died in the first nine months of 2012 after their families came to the attention of the state Division of Family and Children Services, the agency revealed Friday. That's more than last year, when 92 such children died over the full 12 months.
While the increase concerned some child advocates, DFCS downplayed it, saying the comparison between the two years is invalid. Officials said the figure for 2011 is incomplete and attributed the apparent increase to better data collection this year.
Moreover, officials said, their analysis of the 120 children's deaths, tallied in a report released Friday, did not find any significant problems in their handling of cases of child abuse or neglect.
"I don't think that number (for 2011) is particularly accurate, " said Clyde Reese, commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, the parent agency of DFCS. "It's really not an issue of rising concern over the numbers."
But some child advocates said the increase was just too high for one year, and they see troubles in the state system.
"I believe the number is increasing, " said Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported a spike in the fatality numbers early this year.
Child fatality numbers have long been criticized for inaccuracy. DFCS tracks the deaths of children who had been in foster care, had been the subject of an abuse or neglect investigation, or had an open case with the state agency over the past five years.
State Child Advocate Tonya Boga, who assumed the post last year, said much of the information gathering begins with each county's child fatality review panel. These groups are often made up of the coroner, judge, district attorney and a representative of DFCS.
"We have found that DFCS was not consistently at these local reviews, " Boga said. Improvements have occurred, she said, adding, "There is definitely better communication with the agencies."
DFCS officials said they have also improved their communication with hospitals, law enforcement and coroners, who are required to notify the agency of any child who dies from abuse or neglect. As a result of the better communications, officials said, DFCS is receiving more reports of child deaths attributed to other causes, such as illness or accident.
Friday's report showed that 15 children died of homicide, 25 of accidental death and 41 of natural causes. In 22 cases the cause could not be determined. Four of the children committed suicide and the causes of 13 deaths are still under investigation.
The state child protection system has come under scrutiny in the past for its poor handling of cases involving abused and neglected children. Concerns have intensified as budget cuts struck DFCS over the past few years. On Friday, Reese acknowledged that workers' caseloads have risen.
The agency's handling of one case, involving the Feb. 6 death of a 4-year-old Fulton County boy, resulted in the firing of three DFCS workers. The boy died after an alleged incident of abuse. The child had an open case with DFCS, but a caseworker had not visited the family in about two months. Caseworkers are supposed to visit each child at least once a month.
Adams said services have been cut too much in cases where a child has been abused or neglected but is left with his or her family. He said the agency has cut back on items such as parenting instruction, counseling on child development and transportation to therapy.
"We know children are not as safe, " he said.
Advocates were troubled that 38 percent of the deaths enumerated in Friday's report occurred while a child's family had an open case with DFCS.
Tom Rawlings, the former state child advocate, noted that nearly half the children who died had been the subject of a "diversion." This is an action in which the agency confirms a complaint of abuse or neglect and directs the family to community services rather than assigning its own workers to intervene with the family.
Rawlings, as child advocate, issued a report in 2009 raising concerns that the agency was too quick to shift these troubled families to outside services, rather than extensively investigating and addressing the concerns itself.
Seeing the diversion figures in this latest report, Rawlings said, "It could indicate they were not taking the proper action with these cases."
Reese, who took over the agency in early 2011, has also raised concerns about diversions. He said the agency is revamping the process.