The number of Illinois children killed by abuse or neglect over the past year likely will be the state's most in a quarter century, Illinois child-welfare officials announced Thursday in imploring residents to report suspected mistreatment of youths before it turns deadly.
A new report by the Illinois Department of Children & Family Services showed 94 of the 223 deaths investigated during the latest fiscal year that ended June 30 involved credible evidence of abuse or neglect. With 45 cases still being investigated and awaiting an official ruling, the number of abuse-related deaths -- what the department terms "indicated" cases -- appears likely to surpass the state's previous high of 102 in the 1989 fiscal year.
There were 90 indicated cases statewide over each of the previous two years and 69 during the 2010 fiscal year, according to the DCFS tally it has kept since 1981. Three of every four deaths linked to abuse or neglect involved households with no prior contact with DCFS, spokesman Dave Clarkin said.
"That's why the department has been urging relatives, neighbors and friends to call our hotline (at 800-252-2873) when they first suspect abuse, rather than waiting until the abuse becomes fatal and they're getting a call from a coroner or police," Clarkin said.
Explanations for the latest increase remain elusive, though Clarkin said 60 percent of the children confirmed to have died from abuse or neglect were younger than 6 months old, perhaps reflecting "very stressful, isolated times" parents of infants may encounter.
Still, Clarkin said there are encouraging signs: The number of Illinois child deaths over the past six months has dropped, with the 18 deaths in July was nine fewer than the same month in 2012, perhaps thanks to the agency's partnering since January with nonprofit groups, ethnic chambers of commerce, and law enforcers to encourage citizens to report suspected abuse before it proves fatal.
"It reinforces for all of us the importance of all adults ensuring safe, loving homes for kids," Clarkin said. "Whether they're from sleep suffocations, inadequate supervision or death by abuse, all of these deaths are preventable."
The 223 child deaths probed by DCFS over the latest fiscal year was a 14-percent jump over the previous year and the most since the 257 investigated in 1994.
Infants who suffocated while sleeping with parents, with blankets or on their stomachs appears to be the leading cause of death among children, despite cautions by the American Academy of Pediatrics against such dangerous practices. Other common causes of child deaths have been homicides -- typically fatal beatings -- and inadequate supervision, most often reflected in drownings.