Most Indiana counties failing to abide by state law passed six years ago to keep kids safe

Data pix.

RICHMOND, Ind. -- A state law requires all 92 Indiana counties to look into the unexpected deaths of children and issue annual reports, but CBS4 Problem Solvers found out most counties have never issued those reports.

The reports are supposed to help identify "factors that surrounded or contributed to the death of a child" and "determine whether similar deaths could be prevented in the future," according to the law.

Zaydon Gray, 2, died in March of 2017. His biological father, Joshua Null, pleaded guilty in Randolph County this August to involuntary manslaughter, admitting he caused his son's death.

Bridget Goodwin, Gray's mom, said she hopes to keep her son's memory alive.

"If the wind blows a certain way, it makes me think about him," Goodwin said. "He’s always been a part of my life and he always will be, there’s nothing that’s ever going to change that."

A five-county child fatality review team, led by Delaware County Prosecutor Eric Hoffman, looked into Gray's death as part of its 2017 annual report. The team is not allowed to name children in their report, but CBS4 Problem Solvers was able to identify the case.

The report, compiled by Hoffman, goes into detail about the circumstances leading up to the tragedy, including a 911 call Goodwin placed a month before her son's death after he came home with bruises. A police officer visited Goodwin's home and observed the bruises, but never filed an official report or contacted the Department of Child Services. A record of the visit indicates the officer thought the bruises did "not appear to be from being hit or battered."

"This was a case that we clearly thought there was a missed opportunity for intervention," Hoffman said.

Goodwin said she ultimately decided to trust the officer and after a month at home, she allowed Gray to go back to his father's home for a visit.

"We’re not in the blame game. It’s more of, 'Okay, look, this is what happened,' and what should have happened is that law enforcement should have called DCS and said, 'I think you ought to take a look at this,'" Hoffman said.

"At that time, I didn’t know they were supposed to make a DCS case so they can investigate and look into it ... I didn’t know that," Goodwin said.

The two reports Hoffman's team sent to the state, in 2018 and 2019, are among the most detailed statewide. The reports go beyond child abuse and neglect, examining all deaths that were not medically expected. One big takeaway of the reports, Hoffman said, was the high number of unsafe sleeping deaths occurring in Delaware and Grant counties.

"One of our goals is to reduce the amount of unsafe sleep deaths that we have because, in my opinion, they’re 100 percent preventable," Hoffman said.

A program run through Delaware County EMS started because of the reports. First responders offer free pack-and-play cribs, as well as educational materials, to families they find without safe sleeping conditions for children.

While Hoffman's team appears to be working, CBS4 Problem Solvers found that most Indiana counties are not fulfilling the mandate they received from legislators in 2013 to create or join a child fatality team and compile an annual report.

In the first two years counties should have compiled the reports, only two counties, Tippecanoe and St. Joseph, sent them to the state. Hoffman's group of five counties joined them last year with its first report. This year, the number increased dramatically, but the reports still only encompassed 30 counties, leaving two-thirds of the state without reports.

A spokesperson with the Indiana State Department of Health, which receives the reports and offers support to counties, told CBS4 Problem Solvers that 20 counties began work to restructure their teams this year. They said there is no penalty if a county does not turn in an annual report.

"Some of these rural counties probably don’t have a lot of child fatalities, so they’re probably struggling with, 'How am I going to put this together? How is it going to work?'" Hoffman said. "If they’re a newly elected prosecutor, they may not know they have the obligation to do it."

Goodwin said she did take some comfort from the knowledge that a team of people examined her son's case and used it to try to prevent future tragedies.

"I am glad that someone was able to look back on my son and be like, 'Hey, you know, this isn’t right, this should’ve been done,'" Goodwin said.

Two years after her life changed, though, Goodwin said she was trying to raise two kids while she fights to keep Zaydon's memory alive.

"I can’t protect him physically anymore, but I can protect his memory. Nobody can take that away from me, so even if it’s to myself, even if no one else wants to listen, I talk about him every day," Goodwin said.

You can read the two reports Hoffman's child fatality review team compiled below. To learn more about the state law that requires the teams and to find a contact person in your county, click the link here.

2017 Region 7 Delaware etc Annual Report

2018 Region 7 Delaware etc Annual Report

If you have a problem or tip you'd like CBS4 Problem Solvers to consider, contact us at 317-677-1544 or ProblemSolvers@cbs4indy.com.

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