Kern County lost 117 children in 2016. Too many of these deaths were tragedies that may have been prevented. No matter the circumstance, precious lives were taken from our community too soon. Each child represents immense pain and loss for many family members, friends and neighbors.
Of the 117 deaths, the Coroner’s office referred 42 to the Kern County Child Death Review Team (CDRT) to evaluate. These cases are referred for evaluation when the Coroner determines that the death may have been prevented in some way. Led by Kern County Public Health and under the umbrella of The Kern County Network for Children’s Child Abuse Prevention Council, this team is made up of experts who investigate child deaths to identify trends and systemic gaps and develop prevention strategies.
This week CDRT released its annual report and recommendations. Within its pages, we learn of the circumstances of 42 child deaths that occurred in 2016. Causes of death include motor vehicle accidents, drownings, homicides, suicides and other accidental deaths. Tragically seven deaths were caused from an unsafe sleep environment last year. More than two-thirds of child deaths reviewed by CDRT under the age of one involved unsafe sleep environments and between 2013 and 2016 there have been 47 deaths.
October is Infant Safe Sleep Awareness Month. Sudden unexpected infant death is the leading cause of death among infants under the age of one and are often associated with unsafe sleep practices. Now is the time to ramp up our awareness and education efforts as we move into colder months when the majority of these tragic deaths have occurred. The good news is that it is often preventable. But we must all familiarize ourselves with what a safe sleep environment looks like.
The only safe sleeping environment for a newborn is to place a baby on their backs to sleep, using a firm sleep surface such as a safety-approved crib covered by a fitted sheet, and keeping soft objects such as pillows and loose bedding out of a baby’s sleep area. Due to suffocation risks it is not safe to allow a baby to sleep in a bed with either children or adults.
Parents, grandparents, caretakers and family members must protect our children by watching for unsafe sleep environments. If you see an unsafe sleep environment, say something! Your action can save a life.
Every hospital must ensure that any family in need receives a portable crib before leaving the hospital and taking their newborn home. Kern Medical has already stepped up to the plate. Responding to the high number of unsafe sleep deaths last year, they implemented the Safe Home, Safe Baby program, which focuses on providing classes and resources to assist parents in providing a safe home for their infants. For those who qualify, a portable crib is provided at the class.
All pediatrician offices must promote safe sleep practices through education and referrals to resources for families needing a portable crib. Pediatrician and obstetrician offices should ask parents, “Where will your newborn sleep?”
We are making a difference! Over the past couple of years, many steps have been taken to save lives and prevent deaths due to unsafe sleep environments. Public Health initiated a program where families are provided with information about safe sleeping and a voucher for a free portable crib. Other home-visiting agencies, churches, the media and brave parents who tragically lost their own children to unsafe conditions have assisted in the effort to educate parents on safe sleeping throughout our community. We believe it is because of this community-wide effort that we have seen more than a 50 percent reduction in the number of unsafe sleep deaths between 2014 and 2016.
A few months ago, The Safe Sleep Coalition of Kern was formed and includes local hospitals, nonprofits, government agencies, education and private organizations. Working together, we can give our community a consistent message about simple, safe sleeping practices, and help families create a safe sleeping environment. It’s a great step in the right direction, but there is much more work to be done. One preventable death is too many. We all must do more.
To offer your help, view the report, or for more tips on how to create a safe sleep environment visit the Kern County Public Health Department website at: www.KernPublicHealth.com.
Matt Constantine is the director of the Kern County Public Health Services. Tom Corson is the executive director of the Kern County Network for Children.