Kansas child deaths hit record low in 2019. Report shows fewer suicides, crashes but more homicides.

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Child deaths in Kansas hit a record low in 2019, but youth homicides are on the rise.

Child deaths hit a record low in 2019 as fewer youths died by suicide and car crash, despite an uptick in homicides, a new Kansas report shows.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt released the State Child Death Review Board report last week. It showed the state "recorded the lowest number of children’s deaths since the board began reviewing deaths in 1994."

The 90-page 2021 annual report uses 2019 data.

Kansas had 362 child deaths in 2019, down from 414 in 2018. The per capita child death rate has dropped about 30% since 2005, and the infant death rate has dropped about 27%.

Infants accounted for a majority of child deaths, with 203.

Most deaths were considered natural, though the board also categorized deaths by unintentional injuries, homicide, suicide and undetermined. Schmidt highlighted a drop in the suicide rate for the first time in five years.

"It is encouraging to see that our youth suicide rate has decreased after years of an upward trend," Schmidt said in a news release. "Kansans still have more work to do to continue to break this cycle and address the factors that lead a young person to end their life."

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The report also showed that motor vehicle crashes hit a record low in 2019, though homicides hit a 10-year high.

"The data provided by this report is critical to our understanding of child deaths in Kansas. More importantly, we know behind each of these statistics are stories of children lost, families who grieve, and communities impacted forever," said Sara Hortenstine, the review board’s executive director, in a statement. "We have a responsibility to learn from each of these difficult circumstances and take action to prevent future deaths of Kansas children."

Natural causes were the leading cause of death for Kansas children, claiming the lives of 212 youths.

Infants younger than 29 days old accounted for 61% of natural deaths, with an additional 12% from children between 29 days and 1 year old. Prematurity was the leading cause of natural death at 38%, followed by congenital anomalies at 34% and cancer at 7%.

Unintentional injuries caused 65 deaths. Common causes include vehicle crashes, drowning, fires and asphyxia. There were 28 suicides and 23 homicides. The 34 deaths with an undetermined cause were primarily due to sleep-related infant deaths.

Day cares or other child care environments have had 39 deaths over the past 10 years, with six in 2019. Most of the child deaths were connect to unsafe sleep factors, though two deaths were child abuse homicides and three were natural causes.

Over the 2015-19 period, Kansas had the following:

  • 1,960 total deaths in the infant to 17-year-old population.
  • 1,179 natural deaths excluding SIDS.
  • 191 unintentional motor vehicle injury.
  • 178 unintentional injury.
  • 80 SIDS.
  • 100 homicides.
  • 133 suicides.
  • 99 undetermined.
  • Republic County had the most child deaths per capita.
  • Shawnee County had a child death rate slightly below the statewide figure.

Unintentional deaths led by vehicle crashes

Kansas recorded 65 unintentional injury deaths in 2019. Motor vehicle crashes were the most common cause.

The 30 child deaths from motor vehicle crashes in 2019 was the lowest rate since the board's inception. Most of the children were in a vehicle, while five were pedestrians and one was riding a bicycle.

Speeding, driver inexperience and driving under the influence have been common contributing factors over the past five years. Cell phone use is suspected to be a contributing factor, but evidence is typically lacking.

In the past five years, 32% of children who died in traffic crashes were the driver. Just over half of all children who died in traffic crashes were either unrestrained or incorrectly restrained.

Over the past five years, transportation deaths have been higher among teenagers while asphyxia has been most common in infants. Drowning was common toddlers and teenagers. Fires primarily affected younger children, while poisoning, including from overdoses and intoxication, was most common in older children. Weapon-related deaths, including from guns, affected all ages above a year old.

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The report recommended that guns should be stored unloaded and locked out of a child's reach and sight.

"Leaving guns where they are accessible to children, such as in or on dressers or nightstands, can lead to injury or death," the report stated.

Despite more recent drops, unintentional asphyxia deaths in babies younger than a year old have been on the rise over the past 15 years. Such causes as suffocation, strangulation and choking killed 12 children in 2019.

Seven children died from unintentional drowning in 2019. The drowning death rate has been seen a slight decline over the past 15 years. Swimming pools and open water are the most common drowning locations.

"Proper supervision and appropriate personal floatation devices are critical prevention measures when children are near water," the report states.

Three fire deaths in 2019 all occurred in homes without working smoke alarms. Asthma killed three children three children in 2019.

"Although the number of deaths is small, even one death is too many since asthma is a treatable disease," the report states.

Kansas has recorded eight agriculture-related deaths over the last five years. Most involved a vehicle, such as a tractor, ATV or other heavy machinery. It was unclear from the report whether the state had any agriculture-related deaths in 2019.

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Homicide rate in youths trending upward

Kansas recorded 23 child homicides in 2019. Eight were due to child abuse, two were gang violence and the rest were classified as "other."

The homicide rate increased in 2019 and was the worst year since 2009. Homicides have been trending upward for much of the past 15 years.

Because of child abuse, infants have a higher homicide rate more than three times higher than other age groups. Biological parents and boyfriends of the mother were the most common suspected perpetrators. Blunt force trauma is the most common cause of death and is typically caused by shaking the baby.

Six of the eight child abuse homicides had current or past DCF child protective involvement. Of the 23 total homicides, DCF had been involved with 16 of the families.

In many gang-related deaths, children are caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, sometimes within their own home. Occasionally, the children are gang members and are killed in gang disputes. Gun violence has been the cause of death in all 11 gang-related homicides in the past seven years.

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Homicides, especially of the youngest children, continue to happen with caregivers who are unprepared or unable to provide proper care.

"KDHE and DCF should continue working towards ensuring families have access to high quality and affordable child care," the report states.

The report also called for enhanced training for DCF employees and contracted agencies.

"It is imperative that every employee of each agency charged with the investigation of abuse and neglect or assessing the continued risk of children under their supervision or custody have current, high quality training regarding child abuse and neglect as well as other topics related to safety assessment," the report states.

"Through privatization of many parts of the state child welfare system, additional issues have developed regarding the flow of information to all necessary persons."

Suicide rate lower in 2019 for first time in 5 years

Kansas had 28 youth suicide deaths in 2019, six of whom were age 14 or younger. There was a decrease in the suicide rate year-over year for the first time since 2014. However, the suicide rate has been rising over the past 15 years.

Over a 10-year period, the most common methods of suicide were asphyxia and guns.

"The most common method of suicide for males is the use of a firearm; females more frequently use hanging, suffocation, or drugs.," the report states. "While it is known there is a connection between suicide and vehicular crashes, the number of intentional crashes remains unidentified."

Many suicides occurred when the child was in a "short-term crisis," prompting the board to recommend that parents and caregivers prevent access to lethal means.

"Predisposing factors include mental health problems and psychiatric disorders, previous suicide attempts, family history of suicide, history of physical or sexual abuse, and exposure to violence," the report states." Precipitating factors include access to means, alcohol and drug use, exposure to suicide and suicide attempts, social stress and isolation, and emotional and cognitive factors.

"Well-identified examples of social stress include parental divorce or separation, gender identity and sexual orientation, or the breakup of a significant relationship. Bullying has been identified as a risk factor, placing both bullies and victims at risk. Additionally, an increased risk for suicide for females has been correlated with a recent family move. An increased risk for males correlates with the loss of a relationship."

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In Kansas, over the past five years of reporting, common characteristics among the 133 suicide deaths included recent family and parental discord, school problems, breakups with a boyfriend or girlfriend, bullying, sexual orientation or gender identity crises and physical or sexual abuse.

A student survey for 2018, 2019 and 2020 measured suicide indicators for sixth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades. The survey showed an increase in depression across all grade levels.

In high school grade levels, there were slight decreases in students who reported having suicidal thoughts, created a suicide plan or attempted to take their own life. But in the middle school grade levels, there were slight increases in those same categories.

"Youth as young as sixth grade are reporting thoughts, plans and attempts

of suicide," the report states. "The rate of Kansas children who died by suicide is not only increasing, but includes children as young as elementary and middle school. Prevention efforts aimed at reducing youth suicide should be offered to children as early as elementary school."