Federal Commission’s Recommendations on Child Fatalities Would Backfire

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2015profilepicHad I bought a ticket when the Powerball lottery jackpot reached more than $1 billion, odds are I would not have won. In fact, the odds were 292 million to one that I would not have won.

Of course, had I bought six tickets, my chances of winning would be six times greater — but still only six in 292 million.

So it would be absurd for the IRS to say: He’s six times more likely to suddenly  come into a ridiculous amount of money, so we’d better audit all his tax returns and pay him a home visit to let him know we’ll be watching if he tries to cheat.

Yet that is precisely the logic behind an absurd recommendation now under consideration by a federal advisory commission.

The so-called Commission to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect Fatalities is considering a recommendation to prohibit states from “screening out” any call to a child abuse “hotline” involving a child under age 5.

The rationale, according to a draft document:

“Children with a prior CPS report had almost a six times (5.8) greater risk of death from intentional injuries.”

In fact, for a variety of reasons related to the unreliability of statistics on child fatalities, we don’t really know if that’s true. But, for the sake of argument let’s assume it is.

That still tells us almost nothing.

Sadly, the odds of a child being murdered by a parent or caretaker are higher than the odds of winning the lottery. But they still are very, very low: In 2013, there were 1,484 known child abuse fatalities. That same year there were 73,556,000 Americans under age 18 — in other words, people potentially under the jurisdiction of child protective services.

The Commission argues that figure is an underestimate. Given the enormous variations in how child deaths are investigated, this may well be true. So, just for the sake of argument, let’s assume the real number of child abuse deaths is double the official figure. Even then, that means that 99.9967 percent of American children were not killed by a parent or other caretaker in 2013. In other words, the chances of a parent killing her or his child in any given year are far lower than the chances of finding an impurity in a bar of Ivory Soap.

[Related: Advocates Hope for Action on National Background Check Bill]

Child abuse deaths are among the worst tragedies imaginable. The only acceptable goal for such deaths is zero. But the likelihood that any parent, or other caretaker, will kill a child are infinitesimal. The likelihood that a parent who has had a previous CPS report will kill a child are very slightly less infinitesimal. The same applies to all those other risk factors often touted as helping us find the child abusers in our midst.

For every murderous parent whose case has one or more of the so-called risk factors, there are thousands upon thousands of homes where the same risk factor is present and the parent does not kill the child — or, for that matter, harm the child in any way.

That’s why when ChildTrends published its list of Top Five Myths About Child Maltreatment, No. 1 was: “We can predict which children will be maltreated based on risk factors.”

Yet based solely on this one “risk factor,” the Commission’s draft recommendations propose intrusions that are far more harmful to families than an IRS audit.

A child abuse investigation is not a benign act. Often it is, in itself, enormously traumatic for a child. The trauma is worsened if the investigation is accompanied by a strip-search by a caseworker or a doctor looking for bruises. (If anyone else did that, it would be sexual abuse. Yet the Commission has another draft recommendation to increase the number of mandated strip-searches.) And of course, the trauma is compounded many times over if the child is needlessly consigned to foster care.

Even now, when child protection services (CPS) workers investigate cases screened in by hotlines, only 17 percent are substantiated. But the draft calls for requiring investigations in a huge number of additional cases — we estimate at least 800,000 per year — where the initial call now is screened out. The commission even is considering recommending that these new investigations be paid for in part by diverting funds from the meager amount the federal government now spends on prevention and family preservation.

If the needless trauma to the children isn’t enough reason to be horrified by the idea, consider this: In most of the country CPS workers are underprepared, undertrained and juggling too many cases. We estimate that this recommendation would increase the number of cases these workers must investigate by 44 percent.

That means less time and less care for every investigation. So there will be more mistakes in all directions — more children needlessly taken away and more children left in dangerous homes. If the Commission draft recommendations are adopted and forced on the states, they almost certainly will lead to more, not fewer, child deaths.

Those recommendations would give us nothing but the same lousy system — only bigger.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. NCCPR’s full response to the Commission draft is available here.

More related articles:

Kentucky Child Abuse Deaths Lower in 2013

The Child Abuse Statistic That’s Scary, Ubiquitous – and Wrong

Supreme Court Declines to Rule on Fourth Amendment Rights in Child Abuse Interviews