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Gwinnett's child-death reviewers earn state nod

Staff Photos: Jason Braverman<br> Sgt. Christopher Rafanelli, left, and Lt. John Brady with the Gwinnett Police Department's Criminal Investigation Unit, share information during a Gwinnett Child Fatality Review Committee meeting on Tuesday at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center.

Staff Photos: Jason Braverman
Sgt. Christopher Rafanelli, left, and Lt. John Brady with the Gwinnett Police Department's Criminal Investigation Unit, share information during a Gwinnett Child Fatality Review Committee meeting on Tuesday at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Every other month, a rotating cast of about 25 police, prosecutors, mental health experts, child advocates, school social workers and other officials gather in a classroom setting to pick apart the bad news: More children have died.

It's a somber but necessary event.

The Gwinnett Child Fatality Review Committee, like similar state-mandated groups in every Georgia county, quietly pores over the kind of scenarios that induce parental nightmares in these confidential forums.

"The purpose is to see if there's something we could have done to prevent the death," said longtime committee member Ted Bailey, chief forensic investigator with the Gwinnett Medical Examiner's Office. "(We) make sure everything that could have been done was done, so that nothing falls through the cracks."

The committee reviews all deaths of Gwinnett children, no matter if they died sleeping in a local crib or in a vehicle collision overseas, totaling about 50 cases per year, Bailey said.

Their work hasn't gone unnoticed.

Georgia's Office of the Child Advocate recognized the committee this week as the most outstanding in the state, the first time Gwinnett's program has been so honored since its inception in the early 1990s.

"Some of the other counties don't get the wealth of participation they do," said Carri Cottengim, a case registry coordinator with the state agency. "They're actually trying to put some of their prevention efforts into action."

That action includes police officers stressing the importance of secured gates around residential swimming pools after a child drowning, and heightened awareness among parents about the safest cribs, said Stan Hall, who heads Gwinnett's Victim Witness Program and chairs the committee.

Statewide, the child fatality review system was activated in 1989, following a series of newspaper articles that chronicled an alarming lack of investigation in a number of child deaths in Georgia. Legislators passed a law in 1990 making review committees mandatory in all 159 Georgia counties.

The Office of the Child Advocate notes the four leading causes of child death in Georgia are vehicle incidents, SIDS, homicide and drowning. The leading causes have remained consistent for years, the agency has found.

A tabulation of child deaths in Gwinnett between 1999 and 2004, the most recent data available, shows 32 infants died from SIDS, while 120 died in vehicle crashes in those years, according to the Office of the Child Advocate.

"Most of these deaths are absolutely accidental," Hall said. "We're not here so much to point the finger, but to look at what we can do to make sure that doesn't happen again."