I-TEAM: Sleep is silent killer of Duval County kids

Safe Sleep Task Force working to reduce sleep-related deaths for children

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter , Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects , Eric Wallace - Senior Producer, I-TEAM

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A sleeping child is typically the picture of peaceful innocence.

But for some infants, sleep can be perilous if their caretakers aren't educated in safe child sleeping habits.

Of 227 child deaths investigated by the Department of Children and Families from 2009 to 2016 in Duval County, nearly 30 percent were sleep-related, the I-TEAM found.

The No. 1 killer of children was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, defined by the Mayo Clinic as the unknown death of a baby who is less than 1 year old.

Babies who have a respiratory infection, brain abnormalities or low birth weight are at a greater risk of SIDS. Sleeping on their stomach, side or with a parent also amplifies a baby's chances of SIDS, doctors said.

According to the DCF data the I-TEAM obtained, SIDS killed 41 children, and sleep-related deaths claimed the lives of another 26. The No. 2 cause of death was natural causes (38 children), and No. 3 was drowning (31 children).

Sleep-related deaths are tied to babies being allowed to sleep with blankets or stuffed animals, or who sleep with an adult who rolls on top of the baby, suffocating them.

I-TEAM: Startling find in Jacksonville's DCF child death investigations

Sleeping safely

SIDS and sleep-related deaths are rising so much in Duval County that a new Safe Sleep Task Force is being created to save as many lives as possible.

Mary Nash, the program director for Healthy Families Jacksonville, said sleep-related deaths are largely preventable, and it's time for a wake-up call in Jacksonville.

“None of us as parents want to do anything to harm our child,” Nash said. “The parents that this happens to are doing what they're taught, what they know, or they are exhausted.”

Nash said it's hard for people to change habits they have been taught, but she insisted that ignorance must be fought with education, because children's lives are at stake.

“We also rode around in the car without seat belts in the back of a station wagon, but we would never put children in a car nowadays without being properly restrained,” Nash said. “We learn more as time goes on.”

Educating parents

Using state and local funds, Healthy Families Jacksonville contracts with the Northeast Florida Healthy Start Coalition to send family workers into local homes to educate parents.

Among those parents are Kiriana Thompson and her boyfriend, Fadale Mathis. The teenagers have a 6-month-old son, Fadale Mathis Jr.

When they found out they were expecting, Healthy Families Jacksonville contacted the couple to offer free help because their age and ZIP code placed them in a higher-risk category for new parents.

Social service worker Kendall Yelverton comes weekly to the couple's home, and Thompson said it's a welcome visit.

“She's like a natural. She doesn't feel like a stranger when I talk to her,” Thompson said of Yelverton, adding that she was apprehensive at first. “I was like, 'I don't want them to judge me,' and stuff like that, but at the same time, I was like, 'I want to know more and not just have to figure it out on my own.'”

On one recent visit, Yelverton brought a book and onesies that say “This side up... while sleeping” on the front to reinforce the ABC'S of safe sleep. She said babies like Fadale should always sleep alone (A), placed on their back (B), in a crib (C), or in Fadale's case, in his playpen in his parents’ room.

The back of the onesie also includes other safety tips, like giving the infant a pacifier at nap and bedtime, placing the baby on a firm mattress, keeping the infant's crib free of padding, blankets and toys and using a fan to circulate air in the baby's room. Parents are also encouraged to give babies breast milk and to not smoke around infants.

'Sucker-punched'

But the sad truth is, the knowledge and free help Healthy Families provides isn't always enough to save every baby.

During the I-TEAM's interview, Nash received a call telling her a 4-month-old baby in the program had died in their sleep. The baby's mother had been coached in safe sleeping techniques, but DCF found that her baby died while sleeping on the couch with the mother's boyfriend.

Another baby in the program died that same week.

Nash told the I-TEAM those were the first two babies to die while enrolled in the program since she took it over four years ago. So far this year, DCF has investigated 13 child deaths in Jacksonville, and six of those were sleep-related.

“It feels like being sucker-punched,” Nash said. “As a mom, it's awful to hear of that happening, but then I start thinking, 'Is there more we could have done as a program? What else can we do as a community?' We just have to keep working.”

Thompson said she is grateful to benefit from that work and hopes other families across the River City will open their doors to receive that help.

“Parents of all ages, especially if it's their first child, a lot of people don't know or understand how safe sleep can affect and really help out with the babies,” Thompson said.

She and Mathis live in one of 25 ZIP codes Healthy Families focuses its efforts on in Duval County. 

Nash said the 25 ZIP codes, which exclude six areas of Duval County, were compiled in 1998, and it’s believed that at the time, those ZIP codes had the highest rates of infant mortality.

Healthy Families Jacksonville now stays involved with families from prenatal until the child is 5 years old.

Other areas

In the same eight-year span, 27 child deaths were investigated in St. Johns County, according to the DCF data. SIDS and sleep-related deaths accounted for 10 of those deaths. SIDS was the No. 1 killer of children, followed by drowning, then sleep-related deaths and other causes.

In Clay County, DCF investigated 42 child deaths, and SIDS was also the top killer there, with 11 deaths followed by inflicted deaths, meaning the child was killed by someone, then other causes.

Nassau County had 13 child deaths investigated by DCF in that eight-year span, with drowning as the leading cause of death (five) and SIDS at No. 2 (four). Natural causes and accidental trauma accounted for two deaths each.

Spreading the word

In 2016, 91 percent of the children who died were under the age of 3.

Nash said the work her organization does is key to getting those numbers down. Beyond safe sleeping, Healthy Families works with families on safety issues, child development and positive parent-child interactions.

“All parents want what’s best for their children, because I think oftentimes there is some stigma out there that is not the case,” Nash said. “But resources are needed and education is needed.”

Nash said the goal is for social workers to build relationships with the families they serve.

“When you work with a family in their home, it’s such a genuine interaction that you have with them,” she said. “If we show up and we are respectful and thankful of the family opening the door for us every time, we can make a bigger difference.”

She said educating the public is also important.

“The more we get these facts out there and these numbers,” Nash said, “we can prevent more deaths.”

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