ATLANTA — The deaths of children whose families had DFCS involvement rose to 180 in 2013 from 152 the year before, an 18 percent increase, according to a state report released Friday.
But state officials and child advocates on a panel Friday urged caution in making direct comparisons with last year's figures.
Bobby Cagle, the interim chief of the state Division of Family and Children Services, said the state's ability to collect data has improved.
Melissa Carter, the director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center, added, "Every state is reporting an increase" in deaths.
Most states are attributing the higher totals to better data collection, improved collaboration among agencies, better reporting on deaths, and increased interest from the community, Carter said.
She and Cagle, among others, spoke on a panel in Atlanta that focused on the report's findings, hosted by Voices for Georgia's Children and the Georgia Children's Advocacy Network.
Each of the 180 deaths was of a child who had been in the custody of DFCS, or whose family had a Child Protective Services history with DFCS, within the previous five years.
In both 2012 and 2013, 14 percent of such child deaths were classified as homicides. These cases "are a major concern, Cagle said.
Last year, two unrelated cases of particularly gruesome child deaths - the alleged murders of 10-year-old Emani Moss and 12-year-old Eric Forbes - mobilized child advocates and lawmakers into proposing changes in Georgia's system.
Gov. Nathan Deal has created a council to study Georgia's child welfare system and come up with ways to better protect children from neglect and abuse. And a pilot program for privatization will occur in two regions of the state.
Still, DFCS has been dealing with a backlog of child protection cases. Georgia Health News reported in May that some metro Atlanta DFCS caseworkers had caseloads of about 100, an unusually high number.
Cagle, who became interim director of DFCS in June, recently extended an order for mandatory overtime in order to reduce the case backlog. And last month, Deal approved $4.3 million in funding to hire another 100 DFCS caseworkers.
"First and foremost, Georgia DFCS is concerned with the safety of children,'" Cagle told the audience Friday. The report's goal was to inform the public of the state's child welfare work and help the agency discover what it must focus on to improve child safety.
Other key data from the Child Fatality Analysis include:
— 63 percent of the deaths were classified as natural or accidental.
— 48 percent of the deaths were of children under age 1.
— Half of the 26 homicides in 2013 were from "blunt force head trauma."
— And 23 percent of the deaths were of infants whose cause of death was sleep-related. That's down from 37.5 percent the year before.
"Co-sleeping [sharing a bed] with siblings or adults, or unsafe sleeping environments, such as a sofa, car seat or a crib with blankets and pillows, may have been a contributing factor in the deaths," the report said. (Here's a Georgia Health News article about safe sleeping practices for small children.)
The DFCS report said 67 of the 180 children who died had been classified as having special medical needs, and that 78 had caretakers who were alleged to be using drugs at some time during DFCS' involvement with the family. The report said 54 were in families where domestic violence had been indicated.
Statewide, almost 1,500 children died in Georgia last year.