Department of Children and Families

DCF Commissioner Interprets Report on Uptick in Maltreatment Deaths of Black Children

Vanessa Dorantes says Black children are disproportionately impacted, but the data needs to be viewed with a critical eye and can ultimately help DCF better aid communities

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The arrival of COVID-19 two years ago has caused many tragedies. Now, a nationwide child welfare report is illuminating a new one: showing that deaths of Black children have increased during the pandemic.

The 2020 Child Maltreatment report released this month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services covers data from October of 2019 to September of 2020. It identifies 504 Black children who died from abuse or neglect. That is 73 more than the previous tally.

The Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families is reacting to that grim report and is giving insight on what the situation looks like in Connecticut.

“When I look at child maltreatment fatalities, the important thing to remember is those are all preventable,” Vanessa Dorants said.

Despite that, the national report indicates Black children are now three times more likely to die of suspected child abuse or neglect than white children.

In Connecticut, during the same year-long period monitored in the nationwide report, nine children died from maltreatment. Three children were Black, three were white, two Hispanic, and one biracial.

“Now at the surface, that may look like an equitable distribution until you compare that to the population of Connecticut,” Dorantes said.

That is because just 12 percent of Connecticut’s population is Black, according to the U.S. Census.

The Commissioner says when it comes to deaths from maltreatment, Black children are being impacted disproportionately.

“Disproportionately, yes, but with an asterisk, Dorantes said.

That asterisk, she says is because the numbers do not account for other factors, like structural racism, poverty, and abuse in white families potentially being underreported.

“Really understanding what that means in terms of who gets reported to us and incidences of structural racism that kind of almost predispose reporters for over representing their calls on particular community groups and underreporting because of less of a risk tolerance for their white counterparts. So you know, the data does give us an opportunity to look closer at what that really means,” Dorantes says.

What the data reveals can help DCF better address the needs of families, Dorantes says.

For instance, of the nine child maltreatment deaths in Connecticut, six children died from unsafe sleeping, one from failure to seek medical attention and two died in car accidents when the caretaker was impaired.

“So then it helps us strategize in terms of how we work with our partners to address a particular issue, whether it's substance use, unsafe sleep, or any of the other things that we know kind of impact child safety,” Dorantes said.

In Connecticut, Child Protective Services received 51,932 reports of abuse or neglect in 2021. Nationwide, the most common risk factors leading to these calls are domestic violence, financial problems, substance or alcohol misuse, or inadequate housing.

In the bleak numbers on child deaths caused by mistreatment, there is some good news.

“Connecticut's average is about half of what the national average is,” Dorantes said.

Per 100,000 deaths, 1.25 children die from maltreatment in Connecticut, compared to the national average of 2.4.

Dorantes sees the data as an opportunity to better determine where there are risks and mitigation is most.

“We really try to unpack this data as a starting point, not the end point,” she said. “To understand is this truly, you know, a person of color or a family of color experiencing child abuse or neglect at a higher rate? Or is it things like being reported to us more often? Are there things like structural racism that might make a particular group more likely to show up on the caseload of a child protective service agency? The data tells us where to look, the data tells us how to understand and tune in to certain communities.”

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