SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Homicide is set to become the leading cause of death caused by fatal injury among children in northwest Louisiana, overtaking car crashes and drownings, according to the latest data set to be released by the Louisiana Department of Health.

Louisiana law requires that the deaths of children between the ages of one and 14 be reviewed and reported to the legislature as a means to better protect children from unexpected, preventable deaths. When that report is released later this year, Northwest Louisiana Regional Director Dr. Martha Whyte says homicide will be the number one cause of death for children for the first time since reporting began.

The reports cover three-year time spans; the last report submitted by the LDH was for the years 2017 to 2019. Whyte says that, while the current report is not yet finalized, it was surprising to see preliminary data indicate that homicides are the leading cause of all other fatal injuries to children in northwest Louisiana or Region 7.

“We haven’t seen homicide be the number one cause before. It’s always vehicle accidents, drownings, and homicides are usually third,” Whyte said.

Homicides, Whyte says, are not limited to instances of gun violence. Deaths caused by abuse, neglect, and accidental shootings are also classified as homicides.

She cites the recent pandemic and the resulting financial worries as one of the major factors for the expected increase in fatalities, once the report is finalized.

“We had a lot of high stress with the pandemic, a lot of economic stress. So it could be anything from child abuse to neglect or gun violence and accidental shootings. There are a lot of things that could be causing this change,” Whyte said.

Child abuse is not exclusive to those in poverty. Whyte says that instances of child abuse and neglect resulting in death happen across all economic, social, and educational statuses.

“We see child abuse and neglect in all walks of life. We know that it’s not just impoverished families. They’re always in this stress response, so they of course are at a higher risk to respond in an abrupt manner, but it doesn’t mean they are the only ones. You can’t point to any one group,” Whyte said. “It really is about how we handle our stress and how well we are able to step away, take a breath and realize that we don’t need to act out in anger toward our children.”

Whyte says that as difficult as it may be parents have to ask for help and prioritize caring for themselves and effectively managing stress in order to properly care for their children – especially in high-stress situations.

Accidental shootings are another reason that homicide rates in children ages one through 14 have increased.

“When I did pediatric critical care, we would see those kinds of accidental shootings by young children who came across a gun. Either the parent didn’t realize it was laying there or thought the safety was on it or assumed it was out of reach,” Whyte said. “Children are amazing at what they can get a hold of and what they can figure out. We really want to encourage parents to make sure that they don’t leave loaded weapons where a child can reach them, and that they consider gun locks. You know the trigger locks. And that they definitely make sure that the safety is on, the gun is unloaded and put away.”

Whyte said that leaving a gun in the reach of children without a proper lock or other safety precautions is a form of neglect, but doesn’t believe that most parents are trying to put their child at risk. However, a child’s quick motion and curiosity can sometimes end fatally when a gun is involved. So responsible gun ownership practices are critical to keeping children of any age safe.

Whyte said that the preliminary findings of the report were like a gut punch to her as a public health official and a mother.

April is child abuse prevention month and Whyte says there will be events and resources available to the general public to help parents better manage their stress levels.

This story was updated to reflect that the data referenced is for Region 7 which includes Caddo, Bossier, Webster, Claiborne, Bienville, Red River, DeSoto, Sabine and Natchitoches parishes not the entire state of Louisiana.