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PANEL CAREFULLY SCRUTINIZES DEATH OF ANY CHILD IN UTAH

SHARE PANEL CAREFULLY SCRUTINIZES DEATH OF ANY CHILD IN UTAH

Tragedies surround Americans every day. But there are some things you never get used to.

For Dr. Thomas Halversen, the death of a child - by any means, at any age - falls into that category. That why he is part of a a multidisciplinary fatality review committee that closely studies the death of any Utah child.The Utah Child Fatality Review Committee includes representatives from the attorney general's office, the Health Department, the court system, Primary Children's Medical Center, Students At Risk Services, a private citizen/child advocate and the Salt Lake City Police Department.

Because it operates with complete confidentiality, it can examine private documents and medical records and collect data on the deaths of children. It makes certain that each death receives thorough investigation. And occasionally it calls into question the results of an official inquiry, according to Halversen, committee co-chairman.

"We track what kills children in Utah."

Halversen gave participants at a two-day child abuse prevention conference some sobering statistics. In 1993, at least 522 Utah children under age 19 died, more than 200 of them violently and therefore preventably.

Ninety died as a result of motor vehicle-related accidents, and 68 were killed by firearms. That included suicides, homicides and accidental deaths. The statistics, he said, are provisional rather than final.

Other leading causes of death were Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and complications from being born prematurely.

The number of deaths attributed to gang activity were low but expected to grow dramatically in the future, according to the doctor.

Halversen also singled out shaken-baby syndrome as a major cause for concern, especially since it is completely avoidable. Last year four infants died that way. Young men are the most likely to shake babies, he said, and the victims are generally infant boys.

Of the children who died in house fires, only one lived in a home with functioning smoke detectors, he said.

The collection of data has yielded some surprises. In motor vehicle-related deaths, the committee looks at the time of day, location, use of restraints like seat belts and child safety seats, drug and alcohol involvement and speed.

Panelists expected to find a lot of high-velocity accidents that resulted in death. Instead, they found many mid-afternoon accidents where the vehicle was traveling slowly and occupants weren't wearing restraints. "Our suspicion is it's inattention and inexperience," he said.

"We have a lot of school-age children committing suicide," he said.

"A lot of the girls survive because they use drugs" and can be treated. "The boys (who usually choose firearms), don't."

Of 38 suicides statewide in 1993, 26 involved guns. Only nine of the youths had been identified as depressed or at risk. Victims were overwhelmingly white. Drugs and alcohol figured into five of the deaths.

Halversen hopes the information gathered will guarantee that all deaths are properly investigated and no one gets away with murder. That's possible with SIDS, for instance, because it's so hard to diagnose.

He also hopes it will pinpoint areas where the current system is falling short.