Published: Aug 12, 2011 3:41 AM EDT

LEE COUNTY, Fla. - Between 1997 and 2009, the Florida Department of Children and Families investigated 204 deaths of children in Southwest Florida. That's almost 10 elementary school classrooms of children who have died, some from abuse, but most from neglect -- which we know are preventable deaths.

Fourteen child deaths have been investigated this year by our department, including recent cases of a drowning and a child who died after being left in a hot car, both preventable causes.

The recent study compiled 13 years of data on child death investigations.

The top causes of death included drowning and unsafe sleeping practices with infants.

The investigations were reviewed to determine trends in causes of death, ages of the children and caregivers, substance abuse, prior history with the child welfare system and many other factors. The results of this study will be used to further prevention and intervention programs across this community in the hopes that at least one child's life can be saved.

Some of the findings include:

--Death investigations per year in Southwest Florida have risen from 11 in 1997 to 27 in 2009.
--In 83 percent of the deaths, the allegations were of neglect. Only 17 percent had allegations of abuse.
--Most of the children who died, 88 percent, were under the age of 5. Almost half of the cases involved children under the age of 1.
--Male children made up 64 percent of the death investigations, while females made up 36 percent.
--Accidents were the cause of death in 54 percent of the cases. Natural deaths were 23 percent; homicides, 17 percent.
--Removing natural deaths gave a total of 158 deaths caused by abuse or neglect. Accidents made up 72 percent of these cases.
--Asphyxiation/suffocation was the cause of death in 44 cases, the majority of them by co-sleeping or unsafe bedding around infants.
--Drowning took the lives of 43 children, most of them in home pools.
--In 63 percent of investigations, the child had no prior contact with the child welfare system in Florida.
--In more than one-quarter of the cases, there was evidence of substance abuse during the investigation.
--The mother was most often the primary caregiver, especially in neglect cases. In abuse cases, the father or mother's boyfriend was more often responsible.
--Almost half of the caregivers responsible for a child's death were under the age of 25.

This study will be used in a variety of ways throughout the community to increase prevention efforts, especially drowning prevention, and to focus on safe sleeping practices for infants. The information will also used in training for foster parents, investigators, case managers and relative caregivers to ensure that they are aware of the main risk factors to
prevent the needless deaths of our community's most vulnerable population -- its children.