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Review of children's deaths in Utah called 'heartbreaking'

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 19 2012 6:43 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A newly released state report says 177 people who received services from the Utah Department of Human Services died in fiscal year 2012.

That was 13 more deaths than the 164 reported to the state Office of Services Review in 2011 and a five-year high, according to the annual fatality review report. 

No DHS agency was determined to be culpable for any of the deaths, said Cheryl Dalley, fatality review coordinator for DHS.

Five of the deaths were attributed to homicides and four were determined to be suicides, according to the report. All were children who had received services from the Division of Child and Family Services.

Four of the homicides were attributed to "blunt force injuries." Those victims included three infants ages two months to five months as well as a 15-year-old girl. A 15-year-old boy died from a gunshot wound, according to the report.

Overall, deaths among children served by DCFS fell to 42 in fiscal year 2012, compared to 53 the previous year. 

One third of the deaths — 59 — were among clients of the Division of Services for People with Disabilities followed by 54 people served by the Division of Aging and Adult Services. 

The vast majority of deaths — 144 — were determined to be of natural causes, according to the Utah Medical Examiner.

The Child Welfare Legislative Oversight Panel reviewed the report at a meeting earlier this week.

Palmer DePaulis, executive director of the Department of Human Services, told lawmakers that he personally reviews every fatality report and seeks clarifications from the review committees.

"I wanted you to know how seriously we take looking at every report and trying determine whether any action needs to be taken on our part," DePaulis said.

DePaulis said it is "fairly heartbreaking" to conduct the reviews. But DePaulis assured the legislative panels that he has seen "a fairly good pattern of follow-up" by agencies when the committee recommends changes in policy or practice that can help ensure the safety of clients.

"I don’t close one of those cases until I'm satisfied the divisions have responded," he said.

Rep. Johnny Anderson, R-Taylorsville, said the deaths of Utah children who died from abuse and neglect were especially tragic. The report says 14 percent of the 42 child fatalities "died as a direct result of abuse or neglect by their parents/caregivers."

"That's not an insignificant number of children to lose in this state," he said. 

The increase in the number of deaths may be attributed to better reporting by the agencies, Dalley said.

DHS's Office of Services prepares the annual report in accordance with DHS policy. The office reviews the death the deaths of all people for whom there is an open DHS case at the time of their deaths, or in cases in which individuals or their families received services through DHS 12 months prior to the death.

DHS provided services to more than 55,000 clients during fiscal year 2012. Services range from providing Meals on Wheels to people who are patients at the Utah State Hospital.

In many cases, clients become clients of DHS agencies because they have been abused or neglected by their parents or caregivers.

Caseworkers become their advocates and deaths of the clients can affect the workers deeply, said Charri Brummer, deputy director of DCFS.

"It's very easy to become attached and bonded to the people you work with, especially in the child cases. You're responsible for those little one. You want to make sure they're protected. It's a lot of responsibility and with that comes a lot of emotional impact," she said.

DCFS has developed a peer support team to help workers shoulder the emotional aspects of the job, she said.

"It's really imperative you're able find support for yourself so you can help the children and families you're responsible for," she said.

E-mail: marjorie@desnews.com

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