Kentucky Indiana Prosecutors Alliance-2 (copy)

Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull , pictured at the podium in this 2018 file photo, has recently formed a mortality task force to look into trends related to child deaths in the county, and to use the information to make recommendations to the state for preventive measures. 

CLARK COUNTY — Clark County was among the top counties in the state for child fatalities according to a recent report, an issue local leaders are already working to resolve.

The report, released in July by the Indiana Department of Child Services shows that Clark County was third in the state during fiscal year 2017 (July 1-June 30), with four children who had died due to neglect. This is behind only Lake County with nine deaths from abuse/neglect, and Marion with seven. In 2016, one child died in Clark County from neglect.

In total, 36 of the state's 92 counties reported one or more child deaths due to abuse or neglect, with a total of 65 out of 314 child deaths that year. This is up from 2016's total of 59, which had been the lowest reported since 2012.

Clark County Prosecutor Jeremy Mull said he doesn't believe the rise between 2016 and 2017 is necessarily indicative of an upward trend in child deaths — two of them were from one event, for instance. But he wants to look deeper into the numbers and causes to help prevent future deaths.

In June 2017, Clark County resident Ericka Fouch was driving when she was involved in a collision with a train at County Road 160 and Railroad Street in Henryville. Her two children, 5-year-old Adalynn Fouch and 4-year-old Wyatt Fouch, were pronounced dead at the scene.

Fouch was arrested that September after toxicology reports showed that she had methamphetamine, amphetamine and THC in her system at the time of the crash. She pleaded guilty in February 2018 to two level 4 felonies of causing death while operating a vehicle with a schedule I or II drug in her system, and was sentenced to 18 years in prison with three suspended.

To help prevent future deaths, Mull has started a child fatality review team this year that includes himself, the coroner and representatives from healthcare, education and DCS.

He said the group was not formed in response to a rise in child deaths, but a response to any child deaths. This year, the team will look at all cases from 2018 and 2019, review them "to see if there are any preventative suggestions that we can make to the state to [try to reduce those]," he said.

"I think if there's anything at all that we can do to identify the causes of death of children and prevent even one child from dying through educating the public on dangers, then it will be a worthwhile endeavor."

He plans to submit recommendations once a year to the state after reviewing the cases and any potential trends the team sees, information he hopes Indiana leaders may be able to incorporate into educational campaigns.

"For example if we saw a spike in drownings of children in pools, then the state agencies can educate on that," he said. "Or, if it's children dying because they're co-sleeping with parents or caregivers, then there might be more of a public awareness campaign on that."

Dr. Eric Yazel, Clark County health officer and emergency room physician, said he recalls 2017 having disproportionately higher numbers, and he's heard anecdotally that numbers are down since then. But that's not going to change initiatives he and others have for preventing children's deaths.

"I've been doing this for 15 years and I can still tell you everything about every single one of them I've dealt with," he said. "When you hear that mother's cry when you go out to tell them what's happened, that's something you never forget."

Yazel is part of the team that Mull has put together to address child deaths, and Yazel has also started community meetings to find ways to better educate the public on safety issues with their children.

"Basically our main thing is to try to [educate] our parents from the time they have a known pregnancy all the way until their child is a little older," Yazel said.

One of the biggest issues he's seen in this area, for instance, is babies and children sleeping in bed with parents. "If there's one theme I notice that's immediately actionable, it's that," he said. "I get that it may be easy, it may help you get some extra sleep, but it's just extremely dangerous."

Another preventative measure is getting first responders trained in what to look for and how to pass on that education to parents.

"If the fire inspector comes for some unrelated reason, they can say 'Hey I noticed you have a crib here,'" Yazel said. "'Are you making sure you're not co-sleeping with your infant. Are you using proper techniques to put your child to bed?'

"I think just to bring it to public awareness, just to get some repetitive education for our families I think is huge."

The newly formed EMS board can also help with this, Yazel said. This is a group of first responders who look at quality-of-care issues and where there can be improvements.

Changes at the state DCS level could also signify benefits to children and families — the agency has recently ramped up staffing while lowering caseworkers' caseloads.

Noelle Russell, deputy director of communications at Indiana DCS, said in an email that as of Monday, the agency was 99 percent compliant with staffing standards under Indiana law. This is up from 83 percent at the end of fiscal year 2018 in June.

Also, under Indiana House Bill 1006, which was signed into law this year, caseworkers will now have a caseload of no more than 12 families receiving ongoing, in-home services, and no more than 13 families receiving ongoing services where the children are placed out of the parents' home. Prior to this bill, the caseload had been 17 for both.

"DCS is committed to ensuring our family case managers carry a manageable caseload that supports their ability to provide the right care to the right child at the right time," Russell said in an email.

Other information from the DCS report includes that of the overall 2017 child deaths in Indiana from abuse or neglect, 30 children, or 46 percent, were ruled homicides, while 27, or 42 percent, were accidental. Seven of the deaths were undetermined and one was suicide. External injuries were found to be the cause of 58 of the deaths, with seven due to medical conditions.

Aprile Rickert is the crime and courts reporter at the News and Tribune. Contact her via email at aprile.rickert@newsandtribune.com or by phone at 812-206-2115. Follow her on Twitter: @Aperoll27.

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