Important Bipartisan Report on Child Abuse Deaths: Will It Be Ignored As With Prior Studies?

On March 17, the Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities released its long awaited report. This effort involved two years of hearings throughout the nation, contributions from experts and review by a diverse commission appointed to make recommendations to the Congress. It addresses a shameful problem not often politically discussed, nor covered by our media. The former is dominated by the omnipresent lobbyist laden "stakeholders," while the latter do not cover massive, pervasive problems lacking compelling video or micro-drama angst.

But these commissioners held 11 hearings and learned a great deal, sharing much of it with us.
They concluded that about six children die from abuse or neglect every day, with 3/4 of them under the age of 3, and most states violate federal reporting mandates without any response from the Department of Health and Human Services. They tell us current funding for child protection undertaken by the states is woefully inadequate, and those attending these problems have untenably high caseloads and that investigations are inadequate.

Recent trends have encouraged keeping children in dangerous homes because of the failures of the foster care system and the harm that comes from removing children and perhaps unnecessarily disrupting their lives. But we have checks to ameliorate improvident removals:

Children who are removed receive an adult Guardian Ad Litem, the parents receive counsel, courts review it all while requiring agencies to show reasonable efforts not to remove and then to show reasonable efforts to reunify with parents if the child is removed. These are warranted checks.

But what of the decision not to remove? That is rather important because we now know that the parents of most children killed due to abuse or neglect have, in fact, received prior reports to local Child Protective Services. The child protection systems are cloaked in secrecy, and those deaths are virtually the only available information we have about system nonfeasance in protecting children.

Why it is not reported is apparent. Reporting and disclosure is displeasing to state agencies and social workers -- who understandably do not want to be blamed for failing to remove a child. And we concede that hindsight is easily 20-20, and certainly not all deaths are predictable. But many deaths occur after very, very clear evidence of danger. We have the child of 90 pounds who the following month is 80 pounds and the following month 68 pounds and then 55 pounds and then dies. We who work in this field see many examples that are this stark and the only way we can police failures to protect -- is to know about them. Democracy needs checks and accountability.
What is frustrating to many of us is the lack of attention given. For an even better report was published in 1995: "A Nation's Shame: Fatal Child Abuse and Neglect in the United States" and by another governmental body: the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect. This three year study includes an impressive compilation of all of the studies and literature on such deaths over the prior twenty years.

As both reports discuss, the problem here is not just deaths, but what are called "near deaths" -- where reporting of abuse danger is also required. Those who are "seriously injured" by abuse or neglect number ten times the death toll, with most estimates in the 150,000 per year range. The 1995 Report made 28 recommendations. A few have gotten some attention (such as the idea of home visits to at-risk families) but most have been ignored, including those to address prevention and "environmental dangers."

This report issued two weeks ago also includes reasonable recommendations supported by commissioners across the political spectrum -- an encouraging sign. They include a needed "surge" by states to review abuse deaths over the last five years, and to reach out and identify those at immediate risk.

And the Report advocates additional spending for the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), with a $1 billion augmentation. Some commissioners want to study the issue before arriving at a figure, but what the report does not disclose is that we have been cutting child protection budgets for the past decade. The Washington D.C. current mantra is called "revenue neutrality" and has been the honored phrase for many years now. It dishonestly assumes that keeping spending the same in raw number as last year is "neutral." No, it is a 3% to 5% annual cut given inflation and population (and mandated report) increases. In just three years we have seen over $1 billion in actual spending cuts (constant dollar value per relevant child) to child protection federal accounts. The increased funding recommended by this Commission would still be less in actual spending than we appropriated just three years ago. Fiscal conservatives should not have a problem with it, assuming a measure of intellectual integrity and mathematics ability at the 4th grade level.

Nor should conservatives have a problem with another recommendation: Adjusting the federal law so that the CAPTA requirements are part of the Child Welfare Act. For the feds have been ignoring state violations of law against abused children for years, as documented by the Shame on U.S. authored by the Children's Advocacy Institute. Some nine billion in federal monies includes reasonable standards -- but when these standards are flouted by states, the federal agency watchdogs are found burying their heads in the sand.

The new report also tackles another consistent problem area with the federal government, the lack of coordination between agencies (an Interagency Coordinating Council), the need for prevention programs (a Federally Funded Research and Development Center), and the empirical measurement of existing spending efficacy -- all points of conservative commissioners with clear merit.

It is time to spend a bit less time dwelling about Donald Trump insults, both outgoing and incoming. Our two second tweet-world attention span properly yields to the needs of children who are abused and neglected, and where the result is too often serious injury or death. Our television media increasingly present forlorn puppies seeking a home. Or we invest much advocacy in the treatment of the Orcas at Sea World. But guess what, the children most in need do not get that kind of attention. They are hidden away. And they do not contribute to campaigns. They have no PAC. They have virtually no well heeled lobbyists. They have only you.

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