Kansas child death report finds greater risk of suicide for youth in state custody

Figures show fentanyl-related deaths on the rise

By: - October 5, 2022 2:53 pm
The Kansas Department for Children and Families, with headquarters in downtown Topeka, provides oversight of the child welfare system. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Half of all deaths by suicide in 2020 were children who had a history with child protective services, a new report shows. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas children involved in the foster care system have an increased suicide risk, according to a new report on adolescent deaths in the state. 

Half of all deaths by suicide in 2020 were children who had a history with child protective services. In 35% of the cases, the child had a history of being in state custody or had a sibling in state custody. 

Out of the 26 suicide deaths reported for that year, 22 were male youths. In eight of the cases, the child was under the age of 15. In about 54% of cases, the youth had expressed suicidal thoughts or actions before.

While LGBTQ youth have a higher risk of suicide in national statistics, sexual orientation wasn’t tracked in a majority of the cases, and gender identity for four of the youths who died by suicide remains unknown. 

The review of child fatalities in the state is conducted by a board of health professionals, law enforcement officers, educators and attorneys who examine each child death in Kansas. The Attorney General’s Office provides oversight of the board. The board said tracking gender identity and sexual orientation was difficult. 

“It should be noted that the Board will rarely have information that would confirm a youth’s gender identity or sexual orientation,” the report said. 

The state has ongoing efforts to reduce the problem, including a Youth Suicide Prevention Task Force, which was introduced in June 2018, and a statewide, 24-hour, seven-day-a-week suicide prevention hotline introduced in June of this year. 

The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 988.

Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

Barb Mares, area director for the Greater Kansas Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said she noticed a change with the hotline implementation. 

“The calls have increased since the change, and I feel that they are doing such an improvement with how everybody’s being trained,” Mares said. “With everybody being on the same page, this is only going to get better for those that need the services.”

The rate of youth suicide fell slightly from 2019, which had 28 reported youth suicides. Mares said she was optimistic about current changes, but she urged more firearm safety. 

“Sometimes you don’t see signs, but I feel safety is always the key,” Mares said. “So lock up those firearms, just in case. I would rather be safe than experiencing a tragedy. So if you do have firearms in the home, I would just suggest always be on the safe side.” 

In Kansas, 74% of all weapon-related deaths in the last five years were caused by firearms, the report says. Out of the 125 firearm-related deaths in the last five years, 45 were homicide cases, and 68 were suicide cases. 

The majority of 2020 child deaths in Kansas were from natural causes, such as disease or congenital conditions. Out of the total 365 child fatalities in 2020, 197 deaths fell into this category. Of these 197 deaths, 45% were caused by premature birth. 

For the same year, 63 deaths were caused by unintentional injuries, most of which were motor vehicle crashes. There were also 22 child homicides, six of those from child abuse. Thirteen of the 22 families of homicide victims had child protective services involved before the death.

The board warned about a rise in fentanyl-related fatalities. Eleven out of the 16 drug-related deaths reported statewide in 2020 were caused by fentanyl. Drug-related deaths rose from 2019, when there were only five reported cases of drug-related deaths, none caused by fentanyl. 

“The increase in drug overdoses and the continued loss of our youth by suicide are blunt reminders that we have much more work to do in Kansas to ensure the wellbeing of our children,” Attorney General Derek Schmidt said in a press release on the board’s findings.

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.