House budget would cut 1-employee Child Fatality Task Force

lbonner@newsobserver.com June 11, 2013 

The task force credited with helping lower the state’s child death rate is facing its end. The Child Fatality Task Force will fold in a year under the House budget proposal that’s up for a vote in the chamber Wednesday.

Since its beginnings in 1991, the Child Fatality Task Force has launched new laws centered on child health and safety and supported policies to reduce infant and child deaths.

The child death rate has dropped from 107 children per 100,000 in 1991 to 57.4 per 100,000 in 2011.

Over the years, task force recommendations have been among the most debated bills in the legislature. A series of seat belt and car seat laws the legislature passed over the years started with a boost from the task force. It advocated for a safe haven law, which allows parents to leave unharmed newborns up to a week old at hospitals, fire or police stations, or other safe places without being charged with a crime. The task force supported prenatal and infant care policies to reduce infant mortality. The law requiring bicycle helmets for riders 15 and younger also came out of the task force.

The group was under review this last year to see if it should continue to meet, but members were still surprised to see it eliminated.

“We had no idea,” said task force co-chairwoman Karen McLeod. “We don’t know what’s behind it.”

Rep. Justin Burr, an Albemarle Republican and a chief budget writer, offered various reasons for eliminating the task force – that it was meant to be temporary but kept getting extended and that it makes recommendations that cost the state money. Local groups will continue to investigate child deaths, he said.

“I just think it’s served its purpose,” Burr said.

The task force is supported by an executive director who is an employee in the state Department of Health and Human Services who makes about $62,500 a year. The members are volunteers.

Getting rid of the task force would be “a huge mistake” said Rob Thompson, executive director of the Covenant with North Carolina’s Children.

“It combines legislators with issue experts to create research-informed policies that change children’s lives,” he said.

The task force has made controversial recommendations in the past, with some legislators saying the group wanted laws to take the place of parents’ decisions. The task force took on a hugely contentious question before the current session started – whether to teach school children that abortions are a cause of later preterm births. The task force decided that students should learn all risks of preterm births, including abortion, smoking and other factors.

The task force has support among legislators who want to see it continue.

“It does a great service to this state,” said Sen. Stan Bingham, a Davidson County Republican and a task force member.

Though the child death rate has dropped, the task force has not run out of work to do, said Dr. Peter Morris, a task force co-chairman and a 20-year member. “The issues are still active and change,” he said.

For example, deaths from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and child deaths in car accidents have declined, while other forms of death have increased, Morris said.

The child death rate has declined 46 percent since the Task Force first formed.

“That’s something that shows results – that public policy does save lives,” Morris said.

Bonner: 919-829-4821

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