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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Unsafe Sleep Leading Cause Of Infant Death In Washington’s Child Welfare System

Washington state Office of the Family & Children's Ombuds
Unsafe sleep practices are a leading factor associated with infant deaths in Washington state.

The stories are heartbreaking. An infant rolls off a bed and suffocates on a plastic bag. A one-month-old dies while sleeping between two adults.

According to a report on child fatalities released Friday by Washington state’s Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds, unsafe sleep conditions are the leading cause of death for infants in whose families have come into contact with the child welfare system.

Director-Ombudsman Patrick Dowd said children are most at risk of a sleep-related death if they come from families with histories of drug or alcohol abuse, domestic violence or mental health disorders. And he said it’s not enough to just inform parents about safe sleep habits.

“The underlying mental health issue and substance abuse issue needs to be addressed, otherwise education alone will not prevent these types of fatalities,” Dowd said.

One of Dowd’s key recommendations to reduce sleep deaths is to expand services for vulnerable expectant and new mothers including home visits by nurses.

Racial disproportionality is also highlighted in the annual report on child fatalities in Washington. For instance, the reports said Native American children make up less than 2 percent of the population, but account for nearly 11 percent of maltreatment related fatalities. Washington has a racial disproportionality advisory committee that makes recommendations to reduce disparate outcomes in the state’s child welfare system.

The Office of the Family and Children’s Ombuds examined 114 child fatality cases between 2014 and 2015.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."