Congress Votes, Unheralded, to Stop the Killing of 2,500 Children

Last month, in the final hours of the 112th Congress, the Senate, following a 330-77 House vote, unanimously and quietly adopted H.R. 6655. The president signed the bill into law. National press did not acknowledge the bill's enactment. What accounted for such bi-partisan support from a bitterly divided Congress that otherwise passed very few laws? This law, An Act to Protect Our Children, is meant to stop the killing of very small children.

Unrelated to the horrific Newtown massacre, the new law addresses a worsening child violence issue: the killing of upwards of 2,500 children in their own homes annually at the hands of family members, the equivalent of two Newtowns per week. Over 20,000 mostly toddlers and babies were killed during the last decade, 10 times the number of U.S. military personnel killed in Afghanistan in the same period. More than 80 percent of the children killed were three or younger, over half were under one. The dangerous conditions in which many of these victims lived were known to authorities. The existing civil and criminal proceedings meant to protect them were inadequate.

Almost none of the children were killed by guns. Most died from blunt force trauma -- punching, kicking, shaking -- and some from unspeakably cruel treatment. The children in Newtown died at a school, a wonderful symbol of our commitment to children, a public sanctuary where children learn in a protected setting. The children who died from abuse in the most private, and usually most nurturing of sanctuaries, their homes, died at the hands of those they were meant to trust.

By adopting the law, Congress is acknowledging that when children cannot be safe in their homes it falls to the rest of us to protect them, whatever our ideology. The law creates a national commission to develop a strategy for ending child abuse fatalities. No such national strategy now exists. The direct protection of children at risk of serious harm rests with state and local governments. There are some six million children reported abused or neglected each year, reflecting much higher rates than reported in other rich democracies. A recent GAO Study found reporting data on child abuse to be uneven from state to state, making it difficult to measure the true scope of the problem. A recent CDC study estimated the cost of abuse and neglect to society to be $124 billion annually. Among the roots of much abuse and neglect are high U.S. poverty rates, too early parenthood, weak family formation, an even weaker social safety net, and failure to bring to scale proven prevention programs. Altogether, this adds up to very big problems -- abuse and neglect are associated with school failure, criminal behavior, unemployment, substance abuse and depression.

The federal government provides nearly half of the funds states spend to protect children along with much of the statutory framework, technical assistance, research, training and modest, if not weak, amounts of state oversight. It's not enough. Because of wide variations in state spending and policies meant to protect children, children at grave risk -- their lives threatened -- are more likely to receive protection in some states than others; the fatality rates in some states are 10 times higher than others. These disparities require a close look.

Soon, 12 individuals will be appointed to the commission by the president and Congress, charged with the daunting task of proposing a strategy to end the killing of our littlest citizens. Drawn from medicine, social work, law enforcement, mental health, child protection and other disciplines, the commission will wrestle with such questions as how best to identify children at the greatest risk of being killed and how to quickly gather different disciplines and institutions to surround the children in greatest trouble. It will need to look at how to modify confidentiality laws, which were initially meant to protect victims of abuse, but are now often used as a barrier to keep from the public information it needs to improve the system. The commission will review multi-disciplinary models that show proven or promising methods for protecting children, and it will consider the proper role of the federal government in stopping the killing. Finally, the commission will address the larger question of preventing the entirely preventable abuse and neglect in our culture.

One thing Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, seemed to be saying in creating the commission: We recognize our country can do better to protect children. Show us a way. The Committee is expected to begin its work by late spring.

Michael Petit is President of the Every Child Matters Education Fund in Washington, DC.