By Thomas Goldsmith

Of nearly 500 North Carolina children who died in homicides between 2007 and 2016, parents and caregivers were found responsible for 257, or more than half, members of the state’s Child Fatality Task Force heard Tuesday in Raleigh.

Meeting at the General Assembly, the task force’s intentional death committee received the grim latest statistics about the way children from birth to age 17 have died at other people’s hands during the past nine years. Members also were informed about the state teams that review such deaths and about proposed changes in the “safe surrender” program.

Task force member Tom Vitaglione, a senior fellow at the statewide nonprofit NC Child, said the data belied a misconception that parents and caregivers should fear deadly violence from previously unknown people.

“Rather than focus on ‘stranger danger,’ we need to find ways to support the family dynamic,” said Vitaglione, a veteran advocate for children.

Tracking deaths

The horrific realities about some children’s lives and deaths emerged in projected slides on screens at a legislative meeting room. People from the social work, legal and legislative worlds listened and made suggestions about how to shield North Carolina’s youngest residents from homicide.


“We’re not just trying to get the reports done, but we want to do something with that information … to work out what we should be doing in our communities to hopefully keep a child from dying in the same way,” said Michael Becketts, an assistant secretary at the state Department of Health and Human Services.

DHHS and the state medical examiner’s office can feed information to the county departments of social service to help them serve children better, Becketts said.

map shows child fatality by county
Data, map courtesy: Child Fatality Task Force/ NC OCME

Kerry Robbins, social research assistant at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, pointed out trends including the prevalence of deaths by parent or caregiver in children 4 and under, with an opposing spike in deaths caused by non-parents in those between 15 and 17.

“Mothers and fathers are the primary perpetrators charged and convicted of these deaths,” Robbins’ presentation said.

Other statistics showed that during the years studied:

  • Twice as many boys were killed as girls, 185 teens were killed between ages 15 and 17, and 91 infants died from others’ agency.
  • Deaths caused by a parent or caregiver occurred much more often in the cases of younger children. The state counted 200 of those deaths among children from birth to 4 years old out of a total of 223.
  • The principal causes in homicides by parents or caregivers were blunt trauma, which killed 137 children, and guns, killing 42.
  • Fathers killed their children in 34 percent of the parent/caregiver cases, mothers, 26 percent. The next highest category: a mother’s boyfriend, at 22 percent.
  • 242 children were victims of “other” perpetrators, that is, through “homicide not by parent or caregiver,” according to the report from the state office of the chief medical examiner.
  • Deaths caused by people other than parents or caregivers clustered in the ages between 15 and 17. Guns and sharp objects caused 221 out of these 242 deaths.

Better communication between agencies and levels of government could help bring down the numbers, said intentional death committee co-chair Michelle Hughes, who is planning an April summit meeting of people who work in the field.

Shows child fatality by someone other than a parent shows child fatality by a parent or caregiver

Debra McHenry, a program consultant with responsibility for fatality reviews at the state Division of Social Services, talked about the history of the task force, which dates to 1991.

“Children die from all sorts of factors,” McHenry said. “We’re going to collect records from anyone who touched that child.”

State teams carry out “intensive reviews” that look beyond autopsies to many other elements of the child’s history, she said.

Preventing infant abandonment

Kella Hatcher, executive director of the task force, presented suggested changes to the state’s “safe surrender” law. A section of the statute allows a person “take into temporary custody an infant under seven days of age that is voluntarily delivered to the individual by the infant’s parent who does not express an intent to return for the infant.”

Among other aspects of the law, Hatcher said a section in need of revision allows “any other person” to accept a safely surrendered infant, in addition to health professionals and others designated by profession.

“This is not something we typically see in other states,” she said of the “any other person” language.

Task force members expect a member of the legislature to move forward on changes in the law but had not yet recruited a sponsor Tuesday.

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Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...